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.

two great crested grebes facing each other on the water


great crested grebe on water facing away from camera

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).

swan on water next to river bank

close up of swan on water next to river bank

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.

grebelets on the water by the river bank

grebelet close up on the water

grebelet on the water swimming towards the bank

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,

gadwall ducks on the water by the bank

Tufted Ducks

two tufted ducks on the water

and a few Pochards.

pochard duck on the water

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.

teal ducks on the water

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.

marsh harrier in flight from below

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!

grey heron standing on river bank facing camera

profile of grey heron standing on wooden railings

*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.

heron standing on the top of queen of the broads passenger boat

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….

close up pf heron standing on top of queen of the broads passenger trip boat with man on deck peering up at it

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.

image of river with rainbow going from one bank to the otherimage of a river bank with a rainbow in the background

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.

water fowl swimming next to bank with small hut4 tufted ducks swimming towards banktufted duck fliying close to water with reflection

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!

two tufted ducks on the water

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

comorants in trees with dark clouds in sky behindclose up of two comorants in a tree with dark grey sky behind

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.

adult swan with almost fully fledged cygnet

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.

river and river bank from the view of queen of the broads

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.

grey heron standing on top of broads holiday cruiser

two herons stand on top of a day cruiser in Wroxham


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.”

brown elephants on grass with grey heron in foreground


close up of grey heron standing in water with brown elephants in background


close up of grey heron standing in water with two brown elephants in background

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!

grey heron standing in water with crocodiles laying on bank and pelicans

grey heron in flight over water with pelicans in foreground

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

kingfisher standing on bare branch over water

crocodile laying on grass

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.

pied kingfisher in flight

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.

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.

grebes swimming near boat basin

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!

tufted ducks on the water

tufted duck flying over the surface of the water

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.

various plants

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!