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.
There have been more otter sightings around our boatyard than ever this winter. The enigmatic animals have been spotted everywhere from our boat basin and car park to under cars and behind recycling bins.
Many of the Broads Tours team have managed to take a quick snap of these surprise otter encounters and we thought that we would share some of these pictures on the blog with you.
Spot an otter for a chance to win a family boat trip!
With our boat trip and day boat season getting into full swing on 24 March why don’t you come down and see if you can spot an otter for yourself? We are challenging you to send us your favourite otter spotting pictures with the chance to win a boat trip for a family of four for our favourite photo. We will also share a selection of the otter spotting pictures on the blog.
Email your pictures to [email protected] giving your name, address and telephone number (so we can contact the winner) plus where and when the picture was taken. Competition closes 30 June 2018. Must be taken before the 31st October 2018, for two adults and two children. Judges decision will be final. No cash alternative.
Otters are perhaps the most captivating characters on the Broads. Graceful, yet enigmatic, they are the species that everyone hopes to spot on our boat trips. And the great news is that after years of persecution we are seeing more otters than ever before – having enjoyed dozens of encounters with them in 2017.
Some of our favourite sightings include watching otter families playing together in Wroxham village, being fortunate enough to have an otter swim alongside our boat for some distance as we travelled along the river Bure near Wroxham Broad and, on another occasion, following an otter right across Wroxham Broad – giving a privileged glimpse into their secretive world.
Plenty of otters came to us in 2017 too by putting in surprise appearances in our boatyard. The most memorable moments include startling skipper Tom by popping up just under his small dingy as he was trying to clean windows from it, an otter entertaining passengers queuing for a boat ride by suddenly appearing next to them in the water, an otter leaving a half eaten fish on the boarding steps of the Belle of the Broads to one child’s delight (and the disgust of his mother) and even an otter running across our car park. Otters also spent the night in the warmth of our boatsheds last winter and left their tell-tell spraint on mooring ropes to mark their territory (yuk)!
This is our favourite otter picture of the year taken by David Seaford, a passenger aboard the Queen of the Broads on 30 August.
2: Colourful Kingfishers
Many of our trips were given an extra spark of excitement when an eclectic blue Kingfisher suddenly flashed past. Usually the experience of seeing a Kingfisher fly fast and low over the water only lasts a second as these secretive birds usually disappear almost as suddenly as they emerge.
But for a few weeks in the summer two juvenile kingfishers were far less shy and we managed to quietly bring our boat up to their favourite perch, a fallen branch near the entrance to Salhouse Broad, and watch them for some time without them flying away. It was a wonderful experience but as the birds grew up they were pushed out of this territory by their parents and are now probably just as shy as the other adults.
3: Sensational Swallowtails
We were delighted to see Swallowtail butterflies – the stuff of Norfolk Legend – on Woodbastwick reach and while taking Ashley Primary School students around Hoveton Great Broad this summer. By far Britain’s biggest butterfly, with a swallow like forked tail, Swallowtail butterflies only live on the Broads and nowhere else in the country because their caterpillars can only eat a plant called Milk Parsley which will only grow in our National Park.
Despite being such a famous jewel in Norfolk’s crown you have to be extremely lucky to see a Swallowtail because the weather conditions need to be perfect for them to emerge. That made our sightings all the more special, particularly with Ashely Primary School when a Swallowtail butterfly landed on one of the children’s brightly coloured hats! Their teaching assistant, Megan Sayer, even managed to take this sensational picture of the butterfly.
4: Booming marvellous Bittern sightings
We were really excited to spot a Bittern on several occasions over a period of about a week this summer both in flight and resting in the reedbeds. The large brown bird, which is related to a heron, is one of the most iconic creatures on the Broads, since our reed bed habitat provides a stronghold for this very rare and endangered species.
Despite often being herd making their characteristic booming sound from the reed beds during the breeding season Bitterns are very rarely spotted due to their superb camouflage and retiring nature. So for us to see the Bittern on a busy section of river in the height of summer and in the middle of the day was truly remarkable. It must have been a particularly brave bird!
5: Majestic Marsh Harriers
The majestic sight of Marsh Harriers gliding past has been another highlight of 2017. The largest of the harrier family, Marsh Harriers were once almost extinct, having been reduced to their last pair in the whole of Britain in 1971. After a lot of hard work from conservationists and having been given strict protection Marsh Harriers have made a fantastic comeback on the Broads. Although they are now a regular sight, seeing these birds gracefully hunting around Wroxham and Hoveton Great Broad has been one of the great pleasures of heading out on the river this year.
We have seen lots of other raptors too, including plenty of buzzards circling high on the thermals above Wroxham Broad and a Kestrel regularly perching on its favourite tree on Wroxham Island.
6 Great Crested Grebe ‘safaris’
We loved watching at least five pairs of Great Crested Grebes perform their magical breeding rituals in Salhouse Broad this spring as well as elsewhere on the river. As the birds (which are related to the Penguin) have their feet right on the back of their body they can never come to land so they exhibit some really captivating behaviour.
From mid February onwards we watched the Great Crested Grebe’s magical “mirror dance” in order to affirm their bonds with a mate. Watching the males and females face each other and instantaneously copy one anothers intricate movements as if looking in a mirror really was a special experience.
Once the male and females paired up we spent around a month watching them build floating nests along the water’s edge to lay their eggs on. On one small area of Salhouse Broad, which we affectionately named ‘Grebe Bay’, there were four birds nesting in one small area!
The nests started off small but during the month long gestation period, for which the females remained on the nest the whole time, the males worked really hard adding to the nest with everything from reeds to lilies and one even chose a gold chocolate wrapper for decoration. The males were also extra busy catching fish to feed both themselves and their partner.
When the eggs finally hatched we loved watching the Great Crested Grebes carry their little ‘Greblets’ around on their backs because they were two small and vulnerable to go straight into the water. The ‘Greblets’ looked adorable with their little black and white stripy faces and most of them grew up to be big, strong adults
7: Little Grebe encounters
While the Great Crested Grebes were great to watch in the spring and summer, seeing their smaller and shyer cousins – Little Grebes – appear in late autumn and winter has been one of the highlights of the colder months. The Little Grebes hid well away from all the boat traffic during our main tourist season but when this stopped and the river became quiet again more and more Little Grebes started to emerge again. An S bend just downstream form Wroxham Broad has been a really good hotspot to watch these fluffy little diving birds that are affectionately known as ‘Dabchicks’.
8 Swanning around
Swans are probably the most common bird you will see in Wroxham but they can still be a beautiful sight. One of our favourite moments of 2017 is captured by this photo of two amorous swans preparing for the breeding season.
This year there were three families of swans bringing up their adorable cygnets in Wroxham village. All the cygnets did well and it was wonderful to watch them grow up through the year. But the cutest moment has to be watching the cygnets ride on their Mum’s back!
9 Clever herons
Herons might appear a bit grumpy but we’re sure they are getting cleverer. A few years ago one or two herons realized that if they tapped their beaks on the backdoor of our riverside holiday homes someone might throw them a treat.
This season they seem to have taken this a step further and worked out that hanging around fisherman is less effort than catching their own fish. Throughout the year more and more herons seem to be standing patiently on the bank or even the roof of boats by anglers waiting to be thrown a fish!
10 Surprise visits from Bufflehead and Mandarin ducks.
In April this female Bufflehead duck appeared for a few days in Wroxham village and caused quite a lot of excitement. After speaking to the RSPB they explained that Buffleheads usually live in Woodpecker holes in North America but this one was more likely to have escaped from a private collection!
We also had two surprise visits from Mandarin ducks, with one appearing for a few days in Wroxham village in the summer and another duck showing up briefly in the autumn before seemingly vanishing. The amazingly colourful ducks were originally introduced as ornamental birds from China but the RSPB estimates that there are now 2,300 breeding pairs in southern and eastern England having originally escaped captivity. Despite these numbers the Mandarin ducks still gave us a surprise!
We are really looking forward to seeing what nature brings in 2018 and hope you will join us on the water soon!
Now is one of our favourite times of year to be on the Broads, as the National Park dons its winter coat and takes on a whole new persona. Waterways that were buzzing with boats only a couple of months ago are now transformed into a wonderful winter wilderness.
While there are far fewer human visitors, birds have been flocking to the Broads from northern countries to take advantage of the relatively warmer climate, while shyer resident species like otters and tufted ducks come out into the open to enjoy the tranquil conditions.
Not only have we been treated to some beautiful sunny days and mild weather lately but there has never been a better time to experience the Broads at its autumnal best. Our Queen of the Broads Trip boat has just had a new heating system fitted so that you can enjoy a mince pie and mulled wine trip in comfort. Or just wrap up warm and explore on your own with one of our day boats!
Spotting an otter is usually at the top of our passengers bucket list and now is a great time to see them as they are more likely to come out into the open when the river is quiet. James Greasley managed to capture this magical moment with two otters playing together.
James explained “I was travelling along the river Bure when I noticed two young otters swimming together and playing in the reeds at the entrance to the dyke leading to Ranworth/Malthouse Broad. It was a magical moment but hard to take a clear picture!”
Perhaps even more excitingly, we haven’t had to go far to see otters as they have been coming right into our boatyard! Boat basins attract large numbers of shoal fish at this time of year and the otters have been coming in for a nice easy meal.
One of our skippers Tobi explained “Otters have been around quite regularly, plaguing the fishermen by venturing into their boats (not whilst the fishermen are in them of course!) We have seen otters in our boatyard, playing around underneath the pontoon and the bows of the Queen’s of the Broads Trip boat. It even felt that they were playing with me as I fumbled on a chilly morning to get my phone out to catch them on camera. I failed!”
One member of staff who had more success taking a photo is our engineer Simon who took this remarkable picture of an otter running across our car park and sitting on the quay heading for a minute!
We are also seeing a good number of birds of prey on our trips, buzzards circling high on the thermals or appearing from the woodland around Wroxham Broad.
A kestrel is also often perching at the top of a tree on Wroxham Island, only temporarily disturbed by our passing trip boat. “As we approach the kestrel it has tended to take off and fly over the island looking for a tasty morsel – on several occasions we have been able to watch it hovering and holding position whilst it inspects minor movements amid the vegetation,” explained Tobi.
Another very much smaller species we are delighted to be spotting with increasing frequency on our boat trips is the little grebe, also known as a ‘dabchick’. “Having had a few early spots of little grebes in the late summer, almost every trip is now yielding at least one sighting of these dumpy birds, “ explained Tobi.
Although little grebes are scarce in the main season as the river gets quieter the shy little birds venture out and congregate in growing numbers.
“What started off as a pair of little grebes just downstream of Wroxham Broad on a nice sheltered S-bend in the river has grown to a group of five, spotted twice on our trip on Wednesday – each taking its turn to delicately dive down to fish,” explained Tobi.
Strangely the winter season seems to be having the converse effect on the little grebe’s cousin, the great crested grebe. “While great crested Grebes are one of the most common birds spotted in the summer, sightings are less frequent at this time of year. We have only seen two or three pairs of great crested grebes on the duration of our trips although, of course, they are more difficult to spot at this time of year as their feathers have faded from the colourful orange breeding plumage to a white, grey and brown winter outfit,” Tobi explained.
Tufted ducks have risen in number with 20-30 regularly hanging out at the shallow and sheltered northern end of Wroxham Broad. Tufted ducks are another bird whose numbers are bolstered with winter migrants. Whilst some are resident in the UK, we tend not to see any during the summer, as they are very shy and keep hidden away until boat traffic reduces in the winter season.
The coots and tufted ducks seem to be quite sociable and a large group of both types of bird can usually be seen ( 50-60 in total) on Wroxham Broad where they will be using up less energy in the shelter of the trees and shallow parts of the Broad. Here they will be diving down to pick up fresh water molluscs such as Zebra mussels.
A few of the rarer Gadwall ducks have been flying past, probably heading over to Hoveton Great Broad. These wonderful birds seem a little like a female mallard from a distance but on closer inspection are smaller with an intricate barring pattern on their feathers.
There are still plenty of grey herons to see, which continue to follow Anglers hoping for a free meal!
Other common sights – both pictured by James against a wonderful blue sky – include black headed gulls and Canada geese, which were almost absent in the summer but are returning to Wroxham in growing numbers.
Cormorant numbers are also increasing, with seven or eight on the trees on Wroxham Island and a few on Salhouse Broad. Occasionally we’ve seen them swimming in the river or on trees in the villages.
Another lovely sight was this flock of starlings, which James managed to photograph while out on the river.
Starlings put on one of the greatest shows in nature at this time of the year – known as a murmuration. At sunset thousands of birds flock together making incredible twisting patterns in the sky that is designed to protect them from attack from predators, who find it difficult to pick off individual birds. They then settle down in the reedbeds to roost in these tightly packed groups to share warmth in the colder months and possibly to communicate information about the best feeding sights.
Finally, with the Broadland landscape reaching its autumnal best, we will leave you with some beautiful landscape pictures taken by James.
As autumn marches on we are not only being treated to a blaze of colours on the river banks but a wonderful display of wildlife.
We had an unusual visitor in Wroxham Village last week – a Mandarin duck. The amazingly colourful bird (which was also spotted in the village earlier this 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.
We are continuing to enjoy ever more encounters with otters. At the time of writing an otter had just jumped onto the bows of a small dingy, very close to passengers who were boarding the Queen of the Broads for a boat trip, before jumping back into the water.
Last week an otter surprised skippers and crew by going underneath their feet on the pontoon to board the Belle of the Broads. “I could hear the otter snorting as it breathed out and as I looked down and it was right under my feet” explained Krissy, a crew member. “I was really excited to see the otter and watched it swim out from under the pontoon, across the boatyard and underneath a fisherman, who said that it had crawled into a hole in the bank,” she continued.
The dayboat team also believe that there is a family of otters living under Wroxham Bridge and Skipper Oli managed to snap this picture of an otter just a little further downstream opposite the Hotel Wroxham at the start of a boat trip.
“Almost as soon as we had turned out of our boatyard and on to the river I noticed a stream of bubbles coming from under some moored boats outside the Hotel Wroxham. This is a tell-tell sign of an otter and, sure enough, it appeared out of the water a few seconds later,” Oli explained.
“My passengers and I watched the otter swim passed the hotel, cross in front of our boat and then swim up a boat dyke in the opposite side of the river where I managed to take a slightly blurry picture with my phone. It was a magical encounter, but an experience we are lucky enough to be seeing more and more frequently. I’ll make sure I have my big zoom camera with me next time so that I get a better picture!“ Oli continued.
Not everyone has been so pleased to see the otters though, with some fisherman complaining of them stealing fish from their keepnets. But Broads Tours’ James Greasley, had the most unusual story: “I was sitting quietly fishing when an otter suddenly came out of the water and snatched an unsuspecting pigeon from an overhanging branch and dragged it under the water. It gave me quite surprise as I didn’t know that otters did that,” he said.
On the subject of fisherman and wildlife, we have noticed that more and more herons are sitting by fisherman in Wroxham hoping for a free lunch. The birds appear to recognize fisherman and realise that they will often throw them a fish. This is particularly interesting because herons are usually shy, territorial birds but as Wroxham is quite a busy section of the Broads they appear to have not only got used to people but realised the opportunities they bring!
Another very interesting phenomena is lots of birds acting very territorially as they would in the spring. This includes swans puffing themselves up and seeing off rivals (see picture below), Great Crested Grebes seeming to fight over mates, Kingfishers chasing each other and even an Egyptian Goose returning to the roof of a summer house where the bird had nested that spring. Our best guess for this behavior is that there is similar daylight and temperatures in the spring to the autumn and this is tricking the wildlife into acting as they would around breeding season.
One bird that certainly knows that winter is coming is the tufted duck. These shy diving ducks started to reappear on Wroxham Broad about a week ago and are quickly growing in numbers having been absent all summer. Although the birds breed on the Broads, they hide away in more remote sections of the National Park until the quieter winter months when they come back out into the open and their numbers are also bolstered by birds migrating from Iceland and northern Europe.
Similarly, Canada geese are showing up on Wroxham Broad, having been absent all summer. This is quite strange as you would expect to see Canada geese (which were introduced from Canada and are now sometimes considered a pest) all year round. One possible explanation is that they found a more productive food source elsewhere in the summer and are returning as winter approaches.
Finally, we will leave you with two contrasting images taken by Oli during a boat trip. A heron flying gracefully by Wroxham island and a head shot of a Cormorant on Salhouse Broad – not the most graceful bird but interesting in the right light!
Passengers are being treated to a wonderful display of wildlife – with otters and kingfishers being regularly spotted aboard our trip boats.
David Seaford, a passenger aboard the Queen of the Broads, took this lovely picture of an otter during his trip on 30th August and was kind enough to send it in to us for the blog. (If you have taken any wildlife pictures on our trip we would love to see them e-mail [email protected]!)
Perhaps our most amusing encounter with these lovely mammals came when a female otter popped up right underneath Skipper, Tom, in his small dingy. “I was tying up my Punt having been using it to clean the outside windows of our trip boats in our boatyard. The otter suddenly appeared from underneath the Punt and gave me quite a surprise,” Tom explained.
Shortly after this the otter made a second appearance in front of lucky passengers who were queuing up for a boat trip on the Belle of the Broads.
On another occasion skipper, Oli, and his passengers managed to get a great view of an otter on Wroxham Broad. “I was excited to see an otter just in front of my boat as I turned into the upstream entrance to Wroxham Broad. I followed it for at least 200 meters as it swam across the broad towards some houses, giving my passengers a magical encounter for several minutes. I was particularly pleased as they had braved a trip on a bit of a rainy day but the lack of other boat traffic due to the weather probably meant that the otter felt confident enough to come out in the open.”
On the same day several other otters were spotted including two playing together on the river just before skipper Tom turned his boat into our marina at the end of a trip. This area, close to our dayboat hire point, has proved a hotspot for otter activity in recent years, and James Greasley managed to take this lovely picture of an otter with a fish in its mouth their early this year.
Electric blue kingfishers have been adding a splash of colour to many trips. A family of kingfishers are raising their two youngsters on the river at the downstream entrance to Salhouse Broad. While we usually see them flashing past low to the water, on occasions the young birds have been happy to remain perched on a fallen tree branch as we quietly pass them – giving a wonderful view.
Another hotspot has been on the river between Wroxham Broad and Wroxham village where two kingfishers are regularly chasing each other. This is likely to be either parents pushing this year’s young out as autumn approaches or a territorial dispute.
We were very pleased to be sent this unusual picture of a kingfisher by George Walker, who hired a holiday cruiser from our sister company Norfolk Broads Direct.
George said: “What a marvellous site, this beautiful Kingfisher was using the front rail of our boat as a taking off and landing point to fish. We were moored up in a boatyard on Fair Commissioner when he suddenly appeared. We watched the coming and goings for several minutes, not daring to move so as not to miss out on this wonder of nature!”
Several other enigmatic birds, synonymous with the Broads, have also been spotted. Majestic marsh harriers have been gliding over the reed and sedge beds around Horning reach, while Skipper Oli was lucky enough to see a Little Egret. “The beautiful white wading bird with a long dark pointed bill and long dark legs flew out in front of my boat from the reed beds, where it had presumably been feeding on invertebrates. My passengers and I watched it fly upriver for several magical moments after it crossed in front of our bows,” Oli explained.
Our trips pass Hoveton Great Broad and the reserve’s ranger, Elaine, was really pleased to spot a Bittern there for the first time recently, flying very close to the bird hide she was in. The highly endangered bird which is related to the heron with brownish striped plumage, providing perfect camouflage as it hunts in reed beds, is one of the Broads most revered species but also one of the most rarely seen. Despite this we were also lucky enough to spot a Bittern on two separate trips this summer around Horning reach (see previous blog.)
Coots may be a rather humbler bird but are no less synonymous with our National Park having been the inspiration for Arthur Ransome’s fifth Swallows and Amazons book – Coot Club, which was set on the Broads.
We have seen growing number of these birds on Salhouse Broad, with around 14 spotted together last week. This is promising news as we have seen far fewer coots on the Broads in recent years, with their mysterious decline most likely to be associated with increasing predation from growing otter numbers.
Herons are another bird we have seen in large numbers recently and Oli managed to take this picture of one perched up a tree.
Finally, we will end the blog with this picture taken by Laura Greasley on her phone after an evening cruise. If you look closely there is a deer peering out of the hedge from a riverside Garden in Wroxham – it’s surprising what may be watching as you head down the river!