The latest wildlife updates from our tour skippers
Welcome to Broads Tours’ Nature Blog, where we keep you in touch with what’s happening on Britain’s magical waterland – the Norfolk Broads.
All of our trip boat skippers have the privilege of being out on the river Bure – between Wroxham and Horning – every day and seeing a wonderful tapestry of nature unfold through the seasons. Whether you have been on a trip with us before, are thinking about visiting the Broads or just love nature, don’t miss the Broads Tours Nature Blog. They’ll keep you in touch with everything from nesting swans to some of our rarer species like Kingfishers, Marsh Harriers and Otters.
With wildlife changing its behaviour to prepare for the colder months and the river banks ablaze with autumn colours now is a fascinating time to head out on the water. Our winter visiting species are starting to flock to the Broads and many of our rarer and shyer wildlife is coming into the open now that there is far less boat traffic to disturb them. And with our KIDS GO FREE* half term offer running from 20-28 October there is no excuse not to see this for yourself!
Undoubtably our most magnificent sighting was a bittern flying over the top deck of the Cordon Rouge Trip Boat recently giving our passengers a privileged view of this rare and illusive bird.
Skipper Oli said: “We were cruising along Horning reach when, to my amazement, a bittern flew out of the reeds, right in front of my wheel house window and just over the top of my passengers’ heads who were sitting on the top deck of the Cordon Rouge.”
“I’ve spent much of my life on the Broads and have only seen a bittern a handful of times, usually from a long distance as the birds are very shy and masters of camouflage. To see a bittern so close up was magnificent and really quite exciting!
“We have glimpsed the bittern a few more times hiding in the reeds, but it will take something special to beat the booming marvellous flypast it gave us.”
Bitterns are brown and mottled relative of the heron with a slow ‘W’ shaped flight pattern (as shown in the above picture posted on Flickr by Jo Garbutt). The males make a wonderful booming call in the spring to find a mate by blowing out their throats. The bird was threatened with extinction in the 1990s but has made a good comeback due to reedbed restoration projects and has some of its most significant populations on the Broads.
Another rare and welcome sight has been a few little grebes emerging on the S bend just downstream of Wroxham Broad. These shy little bids, sometimes called ‘dabchicks’ due to their small fluffy appearance, only venture out into the open when the river traffic starts to die down. We expect to see more of them as autumn and winter progresses and the boat traffic continues to reduce.
The much larger and bolder great crested grebes are changing their behaviour to flock up in groups of 10-15 birds on Wroxham Broad. Through the spring and summer great crested grebes spend their time in pairs and act territorially toward each other but at this time of year they seem happy to come together perhaps for warmth and protection. The birds’ feathers have now faded from their magnificent breeding plumage and they have a much greyer appearance probably to give them better camouflage in the colder months to come.
One of the most dramatic changes of plumage colour in the autumn can be seen in the black headed gull. As the name suggests, the mature birds have black heads during the breeding season but these have now faded to a pure white colour (with just a black spot behind the eye) now that autumn is here.
Another welcome sight is the return of the first few tufted ducks onto Salhouse Broad. These shy, deep diving ducks disappear off the broad in the summer due to all the boat traffic but now that it is becoming quieter again the birds are starting to return. The population will also soon be swelled by migratory tufted ducks returning to the UK.
Another species that is beginning to grow in numbers is the cormorant. These sea birds, which are related to the shag family, move into the Broads to take advantage of the easy fishing as well as having far more protection from the elements. Although we see cormorants throughout the year their inland numbers increase significantly at this time of year as the conditions at sea become more challenging.
During our boat trips we usually see the birds fishing as well as spreading their wings on tree tops to dry out after a fishing session. They need to do this as they have not natural waterproofing oils like other birds such as ducks.
We are pleased to have seen a growing number of around a dozen coots on Salhouse Broad recently. These small black birds with a white face shield were in great numbers throughout the Broads until about ten years ago but have drastically declined in numbers since then perhaps due to predation from otters. Let’s hope the coots on Salhouse Broad continue to increase in numbers again!
One bird that is certainly not short on numbers is the greylag goose. However with autumn underway they are starting to adapt their behaviour to graze for themselves around wilder sections of the Broads rather than relying on being fed by the tourists!
We are also delighted to be continuing to spot everyone’s favourite sight – otters – plus colourful kingfishers darting low over the water and birds of prey including marsh harriers, kestrels and large numbers of buzzards circling high on the thermals (as seen flying over Wroxham Broad on the picture below.)
If all of that wasn’t enough to tempt you to head out onto the water this autumn the riverside vegetation is also putting on its annual autumn show – with the burning red of dogwood, rosehips and wild hops adding to the display of autumnal riverside trees.
On this note we will leave you with this picture of a heron flying past an ‘autumn canvas’.
Our regular trip timetable runs daily until 31st October at 11.30am and 2pm.
Better Still – if you are looking to entertain the kids this half term we are running a KIDS GO FREE* half term offer from Saturday 20th October – Sunday 28th October 2018 inclusive. Tours cost £9 per adult with a maximum of two free children for every fare paying adult.
This otter was literally ‘up a creek without a paddle’ when it was spotted on a kayak at Wroxham Week regatta. One of the sailors competing in the regatta, Hilary Franzen, who took the picture of the otter on Wroxham Broad said: “I was standing by the sailing club house when the cheeky otter climbed onto the kayak and began using it as a dinner table to eat a large fish”.
“The otter seemed unconcerned by all the commotion of the regatta, although it was precluded from taking part in any of the rowing or canoeing races due to the lack of a paddle!” she added.
One of our skippers Oliver Franzen said: “All our boat trips visit Wroxham Broad and during the rest of the regatta we had the fun of not only watching the racing but trying to spot the kayaking otter. Although the otter never showed up again we have seen many more of these magical animals both in the village, particularly near our boatyard and Wroxham Bridge, as well as in the wilder rivers and broads.”
Oliver also managed to take this picture of a mystical 4am sunrise over Wroxham Broad while staying on a boat during the regatta.
We had an unusual visitor in Wroxham village last week – a Mandarin duck. The colourful bird (which briefly showed up for a few days last October and was also seen last summer) was introduced as an ornamental duck from China but has now become established having escaped captivity.
The RSPB estimates that there are now 2,300 breeding pairs of Mandarin ducks in southern and eastern England, with a total of 7,000 birds wintering here. Despite the growing numbers they are still a welcome surprise with the males displaying distinctive long orange feathers on the side of the face, orange ‘sails’ on the back, and pale orange flanks. The females, by comparison, are much more drab.
One of the newest additions to the river are a family of small fluffy moor hens which were hatched in Wroxham village last week. Meanwhile most of the ducklings are growing up to be nearly the size of their parents, as shown in the picture taken on Salhouse Broad by skipper Tobi.
The great crested greblets we have been watching since they hatched on Salhouse Broad in the spring have been growing up well. The greblets (which are now nearly the size of their parents but still have a cute stripy face and ‘punk hairdo’ rather than a full crest) are being taken into the open water and taught to fish for themselves by their parents. Despite the fishing lessons most of the greblets haven’t stopped chirping madly to beg for food from their parents – which must seem easier than catching their own fish!
Just one or two or the most mature greblets are now heading out on to the river to fish on their own while other birds are disappearing to Hoveton Great Broad.
Two more birds species that have been delighting passengers with impressive regularity are electric blue kingfisher darting low over the water and majestic marsh harrier swooping overhead.
Not to be overlooked is the wonderful colours emerging in riverside vegetation. The hot weather appears to have encouraged the reeds to flower early and take on a wonderful purple hew as shown by this picture taken by skipper Tobi.
Tobi also capture this picture of a bee (which are in sadly short numbers these days) on the striking colours of hemp agrimony. The wildlflower, which is sometimes known as ‘raspberries and cream,’ is really lighting up the river bank with displays of frothy clusters of tiny pink flowers on top of long reddish stems.
Finally, we will leave you with the ultimate natural kaleidoscope of colours – sunset over Salhouse Broad – taken by Tobi during an evening charter on the Cordon Rouge trip boat.
We are pleased to announce that our sister company – Norfolk Broads Direct – has become a Gold Investor in Wildlife with Norfolk Wildlife Trust. Rather fittingly, we have had wonderful encounters with some of Norfolk’s most iconic wildlife lately – much of which was in our boatyard!
Topping the list was a Swallowtail butterfly, which landed on the back deck of the Queen of the Broads while we were boarding passengers! Swallowtails are Britain’s largest butterfly and, as well as being very rare, are a species we are especially proud of because they only live in Norfolk. This is because the swallowtail caterpillar can only eat a plant called milk parsley, which can only live in our reed and sedge beds.
Our crew member Donna, helped the Swallowtail to a quieter spot in the sunshine, where we were able to take this great picture of the magnificent butterfly. It’s large size can clearly be seen against the palm of Donna’s hand.
The Queen of the Broads must have a lucky streak at the moment as a few days after the encounter with the Swallowtail this stunning Brown Hawker dragonfly also landed on a life ring on the back deck of the boat.
Another intriguing site in our boat yard was this Leopard moth caterpillar!
Yet another exciting site from our boatyard was a magnificent Red Kite soaring overhead. The graceful bird of prey with a reddish-brown body, angled wings and deeply forked tail was saved from national extinction by one of the world’s longest-running protection programmes. While it is more frequently seen in the west of the country the birds appear to be gradually spreading into Norfolk!
Despite all the great sightings from our boatyard nothing beats actually heading out on the water on a boat trip. Better still, one of our skippers Tobi achieved the “holy trinity” of spotting an otter, a kingfisher and a marsh harrier all on the same trip recently.
Tobi said: “The trip started well when, just ten minutes in, we spotted an otter towing a greylag goose – pausing for a minute we watched it pass and disappear into a boat cut. It’s always great in a trip to see one of the rarer species before even leaving the villages!
“To make things even better, I then caught sight of a kingfisher flying across in front of one of our other trip boats, the Cordon Rouge, and heading off between the trees.
“At this point, the trip was feeling really good – a nice sunny day and a kingfisher and otter under our belts with plenty of dragonflies and damselflies zipping around over the lilies.
“What this meant to me though, was that we were now on for our ‘trinity’ of sightings. Whilst seeing an otter, kingfisher or marsh harrier on a trip is a joy both for us skippers, and also the passengers, it is quite a rare occasion to see all three on one trip.
“The completion of the ‘trinity’ happened on our return journey, having lingered by Woodbastwick Marshes hoping for the lazy flight of a marsh harrier over the reeds and not having any success, we made our way back upstream. To my delight, as we approached Decoy Staithe, crossing in front of us, then flying low over the reeds was the dark shape of a female ‘marshie’. This was then confirmed by one of our other skippers, Tom, who radioed through to see if I had seen it.
“This is the beauty of these trips – you could visit specific reserves and see certain rare species but here we get the chance of seeing quite a mix of habitats, landscape changes and wildlife.”
Taking a picture of a marsh harrier in flight can be quite a challenge, but a customer on holiday with our sister Company Norfolk Broads Direct managed to take this staggering picture showing a marsh harrier carrying a rabbit it had caught.
Passengers have also loved watching lots of Great Crested Grebes rearing their ‘greblets’ on Salhouse broad. Most of the ‘greblets’ are getting quite big now with the adults taking them out into open water and teaching them to fish.
However, there is still one grebe still on a nest at the bottom entrance of the broad as well as a recently hatched brood that have been carried around on mum’s back. The reason for these later arrivals is that grebes will often make several attempts at building a nest if their initial effort gets destroyed – so the ‘greblets’ hatched later in the year are often the result of their parent’s persistence.
One rather less conventional site that hopped onto Salhouse Broad recently is a GoGoHare – named Warden Willow – which is part of the incredibly popular art trail that runs until 8 September to raise money for BREAK children’s charity. Sixty eight hares, each of which has been uniquely designed by local artists, are hidden around Norwich and Norfolk and thousands of children (and big kids) are jumping with excitement hunting them down on the trail. There is even a GoGoHares sticker book to collect each design!
Warden Willow, who is sponsored by Hoveton Great Broad, arrived with great fanfare having sailed on the back of the Wherry Olive from Wroxham to Salhouse Broad, where crowds of people awaited the hare’s arrival! Our boat trip passengers are now loving spotting Warden Willow on Salhouse beach from their vantage point on the water.
Finally, we will leave you with this rather amusing picture of a heron admiring our day boats. We have called the picture, which was taken by crew member Fiona, “fishing for customers” but if you have any better suggestions please send them to [email protected]
If you only visit the Broads once a year this is the time to come. The waterways are full of birdlife busily rearing their adorable young in the sunshine.
There are two families of adorable little cygnets delighting boaters alongside scores of ducklings and families of greylag, Canada and Egyptian geese goslings in Wroxham village.
Perhaps our favourite place to spot young birds at the moment is Salhouse Broad. There are at least three families of great crested grebes carrying their adorable little ‘greblets’, which have black and white stripy faces, around on their backs. Other than looking super cute this protects their young from predators such as pike grabbing them in the water.
Two more great crested grebes are still incubating their eggs on floating rafts near the downstream entrance to the Broad, so we are eagerly awaiting more new arrivals!
The reason that these birds are still nesting is that they had their initial nests destroyed. Undeterred they built another floating raft for their eggs and things are going well this time!
Another bird that builds floating nests is the coot and we are enjoying spotting their cootlings with fluffy bodies and brightly coloured beaks.
Better still we have been enjoying regular kingfisher sightings in the area, not only as an electric blue flash as the birds fly fast and low over the water, but also perching on branches where passengers can get a good look at them. On several occasions there have been two kingfishers perching together on a branch and diving into the water to catch fish.
Passengers are loving spotting otters on a regular basis and we have had some amazing encounters with them recently. Skipper Tom and his passengers were captivated by watching an otter carrying a huge pike in its mouth recently “the pike was almost as big as the otter!” he said.
But perhaps the biggest surprise came when a very large dog otter slid out of the water and stood behind crew member Donna, while over 100 people were boarding the Queen of the Broads. Skipper Oli said: “I looked up the pontoon where Donna was boarding customers and was amazed to see a huge otter stood right behind her. Donna was completely unaware of the otter, like the classic scene from a pantomime and when I shouted ‘its behind you’ she jumped out of skin!”. It really shows how confident otters are becoming even with lots of people about.
Another welcome visitor to the Broads is common terns, who have been migrating in from Africa for the last few weeks. More than 20 pairs of the terns are laying their eggs on a special floating platform filled with sand on Hoveton Great Broad. We are loving spotting the birds fishing on nearby Salhouse Broad where they perform amazing aerial acrobatics before dive bombing into the water to catch their lunch.
Finally, we will leave you with this rather amusing Broadland picture of duckling being raised as part of a greylag goose family at Irstead Staithe (near Barton Broad).
Marilyn who lives near the staithe and took the picture explained “A pair of greylag geese have been raising a little duckling alongside their goslings for the last couple of weeks. It’s really cute and the mother goose seems quite unaware that the duckling isn’t one of her own goslings despite the size difference!”
The picture certainly deserves a good caption. Skipper Tom suggested “What the duck!”. If you have any better ideas we would love to hear them! (Send your suggestions to [email protected])
It may have felt like winter until recently but this hasn’t deterred the arrival of the swallows and wonderful courtship and nesting rituals from a variety of birds. With the weather due to really hot up this week, feeling like it has skipped straight from winter to summer, it’s the perfect time to head out onto the water and see the wildlife for yourself.
A real highlight is watching at least four pairs of great crested grebes nesting on Salhouse Broad. The birds, which are related to the penguin, have their feet on the back of their bodies which makes them excellent divers but useless on the land. As a result, great crested grebes build floating nests to lay their eggs on. And passengers are loving watching the females sitting on these rafts while the males busily gather items to add to the nest.
Great crested grebes often start building a nest and then abandon it to build another one in a preferred location. A pair of coots are making good use of this opportunity by starting to nest in one of these abandoned rafts.
Canada and Greylag geese are also nesting on Salhouse broad at the base of tree trunks. The greylags are particularly well camouflaged – can you spot them in the pictures below?
Perhaps our favourite sighting close to Salhouse Broad was a pair of kingfishers flying together in courtship. Skipper Tom explained: “We were cruising towards Salhouse Broads and a pair of kingfishers came zipping past at a rate knots. Both the kingfishers landed on a stump together, giving us a fantastic view. The fact that it was dull weather actually magnified the vibrant colours of the kingfisher. The beautiful birds then followed the boat down river for the next couple of minutes which was a magical experience.”
Another fantastic site has been lots of marsh harriers gliding over the reed beds in Horning Reach. On several occasions we have seen pairs of birds circling together, probably as part of their breeding rituals. This is great news as in the 1970s these sensational raptors were driven to the brink of extinction but are now recovering well.
Back on the water, swans have been puffing themselves up and displaying territorially. And a pair of these graceful birds appear to be alternating between two potential nesting sites in the undergrowth near Salhouse Little Broad and another small broad called the Pulk.
Another interesting sight is a pair of Egyptian geese that are returning to their regular nesting site on the roof of a summer house in Wroxham Village.
Unfortunately we saw the Egyptian geese being bullied by this larger greylag goose which pushed them off the roof of the summer house. This picture shows the bully a few seconds after it’s bad behaviour!
Interestingly the reason that Egyptian geese are so much smaller than Greylags, is because they are closely related to shelducks rather than being a true goose.
Our first swallows arrived about two weeks ago and more and more can be seen flying low over Wroxham Broad to catch insects. The dull weather tends to encourage insects to hatch and this has been a great opportunity for the swallows to catch plenty of food – deservedly having a good meal after their epic migration from Africa!
This picture shows the broad looking particularly atmospheric on a misty day last week.
We also took this picture of two black headed gulls on the sign for Wroxham Broad. Despite their name, it is only the mature birds whose heads turn black in the breeding season before going white again in the autumn and winter.
The colder weather and lack of heavy boat traffic has encouraged tufted and pochard ducks, which usually disappear after winter, to remain on Wroxham and Salhouse Broad in greater numbers than you would usually expect at this time of year.
The picture below shows a pair of tufted ducks on Salhouse broad and the stark difference between the males and females. The black and white male looks stunning with a beautiful tuft on its head while the female is a drab brown and has no tufts at all!
Similarly in this group of pochards pictured on Wroxham Broad you can clearly see the males with their distinctive red heads and white bodies, while the female looks drab and brown.
Although the bankside vegetation certainly appears to be a little behind for the time of year we currently have a splash of colour from skunk cabbage and the marsh marigolds shown below.
Finally, while not strictly wildlife, we will leave you with this picture of these adorable spring lambs pictured while out walking in Salhouse village!