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 the height of the summer season in full swing and school holidays kicking off we are still enjoying some wonderful wildlife sightings of our rarest creatures. A fitting tribute to the excellent water quality and sustainable tourism we enjoy today.
Top of the list is the enigmatic Otter – which years ago were highly endangered and hardly ever seen – but now are appearing with increasing regularity on the Broads.
A few days ago, an Otter popped up in our boat basin behind the Vintage Broadsman as passengers were boarding.
Undoubtedly the best otter sighting came on a 4pm boat trip with skipper, Tobi. An Otter popped up in front of his boat near the downstream entrance to Wroxham Broad. Remarkably Tobi managed to follow the Otter for about a quarter of a mile as it swam upstream towards the start of Wroxham village, presumably unconcerned by the boat. It was a wonderful opportunity for passengers to get a really good view of this amazing animal!
Perhaps even more excitingly, we had two separate sightings of a Bittern landing in the reedbeds near Horning reach by skippers Tom and Oli only a few days apart. Despite being one of the best loved and most iconic birds on the Broads – Bitterns are hardly ever seen as they are very rare, secretive and well camouflaged so to have two sightings in the middle of the day when the river is busy is quite remarkable. Maybe this Bittern is a particularly brave!
We have continued to have wonderful sightings of Norfolk’s iconic Swallowtail butterfly on Horning reach, but perhaps the most special encounter came while taking Ashley Primary School students around Hoveton Great Broad Nature Trail.
Skipper Oli, who was leading the group said “I led a group of children around Hoveton Great Broad to watch a colony of common Terns nesting from a bird hide but we got more than we had bargained for as Britain’s biggest butterflies – The Swallowtail – emerged from the reedbeds and one even landed on one of the children’s brightly coloured hats. It was a magical experience that will hopefully inspire the children to continue to enjoy Norfolk’s wonderful wildlife. “
The Children’s teaching assistant, Megan Sayer, managed to take these lovely pictures of the Swallowtail (above and below). The amazing butterfly is only found on the Broads and nowhere else in the world because its caterpillar can only eat a plant called milk parsley, which will only live in Norfolk’s reed and sedge beds.
Another majestic sight is the increasing number of Marsh Harriers we are seeing on our boat trips, particularly around Horning reach. These large birds of prey were almost extinct in the 1970s (down to their last pair) but are now an increasingly common sight on the Broads despite being nationally still rarer than Golden Eagles.
Aside from our endangered species we have also had some unusual encounters with more commonly seen animals.
Oli spotted a Cormorant catching a huge eel of at least two feet long, battling it in the water and then gulping it live down its throat in sections. “I tried to grab my camera to capture the moment but by the time it was safe to take a picture the Cormorant had just swallowed the Eel. But I managed to take this picture showing the Cormorant looking extremely full and unable to dive away from our boat as a result,” Oli said.
Tom also saw a juvenile heron trying to catch a fish in open water. “The Heron was flapping around in middle of the river and the fish was jumping out of the water to try to escape from it,” Tom said. “It’s something I have never seen before as Herons usually stand very still and fish in the shallows. Maybe it was just a young bird learning the ropes,” Tom said.
Another interesting sight is a hybrid goose, crossed between a Greylag and Canada goose. The goose, which is shown in the far left of the picture below looks very similar to the Greylags that surround it but has a white stripe across its face, presumably relating to the white chin strap on a Canada goose.
We are keeping tabs on our water bird families, with the Grebes on Salhouse Broad and Swans in Wroxham and Hoveton doing well. The three families of swans have two, three and five cygnets respectively. The male swans in the families have been acting very territorially, driving each other out of their specific territories recently and even bullying the geese to boot.
Some of the birds seem to be exhibiting some mating ritual behaviour – grebes doing their mirror dance – which makes us think that they may try nesting again before the summer is out. The ducks, as ducks do, just keep on going through the summer and Salhouse Broad yielded a family of twelve fuzzy ducklings!
The bankside colours are extremely striking at present, awash with pinks in the form of Hemp Agrimony, Purple Loosestrife, Greater Willowherb and Himalayan Balsam. The latter is an invasive species that was brought in by the Victorians and is a bit of a problem plant here in the Broads as it takes over and outshades other native species. It does have beautiful flowers though, and unless it has been pulled up by the Broads Authority and their volunteers, you’ll see it growing up taller than all the other flowers with its pink orchid like flowers.
Each year we are seeing more and more lilies along the riverbank and this year is no exception. In addition to the more common yellow water lilies we have quite a few native white water lilies. These are not only Britain’s largest native flower but are also very rare as they are very sensitive to any kind of water pollution. So, the fact that we have so many of these in the Broads these days shows just how good the quality has become.
On another note the fishing season kicked off a month ago and there have been plenty of fisherman out and about. From the river trips we have managed to spot a successful catch with a 20lb pike being held aloft, the wolf of the waterways with their sharp teeth present quite the formidable opponent!
This picture shows Skipper Oli, with a 16lb pike he caught on Rockland Broad two weeks ago.
On a final note, the Broads’ open skies are a feast for sore eyes for colourful reflected sunsets. Here’s a photo Oli, captured on an evening charter.
With the arrival of June we have ever more newly hatched young to spot and Otters are making an appearance with surprising regularity.
Three out of the five Great Crested Grebe pairs that we reported were nesting on Salhouse Broad have now hatched delightful little “Grebelets”. Our passengers have loved seeing the Grebelets being carried around on their mother’s back – as shown on this picture.
There are still two Grebes sitting on their remarkable floating nests on Salhouse Broad – a sight that is also capturing the imagination of our passengers. It’s surprising how many materials are used to build the nest – from lily leaves to reeds and even a gold chocolate wrapper that one has collected as decoration. The male Grebes work really hard collecting these materials and then pass it over to the female on the nest who carefully decides where to arrange the “furniture”.
This picture shows a Grebe nesting on the nearby Hoveton Great Broad, which is located just opposite Salhouse Broad but can only be reached via a special nature trail, accessible only by boat. It’s an important nature reserve that has been closed to boat traffic for over a century and is well worth a visit by day boat.
A highlight on Hoveton Great Broad is a large number of Common Terns arriving from Africa to nest on a specially designed nesting platform (shown below). The population is being carefully surveyed by Natural England, as fewer Common Terns had arrived in recent years but things are looking more positive for 2017.
It’s not just the Common Terns using the nesting platform. This picture shows a Black Headed Gull nesting amongst the terns as well as a cormorant peering over. This situation is being monitored by Natural England as Black Headed Gulls can outcompete the Terns, but also offer more aggressive protection against predators. In short, it’s hard to say whether the Black Headed Gulls are a good or a bad thing for the Terns but we will keep you posted!
On the subject of Cormorants, very large numbers of the sea birds are arriving on Hoveton Great Broad and this picture shows them seeming to hunt in packs – although in reality they could all just be following a large shoal of fish.
In amongst the jungle-like carr woodland at Hoveton Great Broad nature trail we have been enjoying watching a Woodpecker feeding her chicks in a hole in a tree – as shown below.
Back out on the river near Wroxham Broad we took these lovely pictures of a Heron hunting in the margins and a Gadwall duck. Take a close look at this endangered duck, which is on the RSPB Amber list, and you’ll see that it’s grey colour is made up of exquisitely fine barring and speckling.
Back in Wroxham we now have three families of swans with their delightful little Cygnets. The swans seem much less territorial than last year and seem to be crossing over territory within the river without too much squabbling.
Excitingly, our boatyard is proving a hotspot for otter activity. Years ago Otters would have been a very rare sight indeed but we are now seeing them with remarkable regularity. One of our day boat lads, Joe, managed to film a dog otter walking across our car park while our skipper Oli, had an Otter come up right under his feet while filling up the water tank on one of our trip boats. He managed to grab his camera in time to show the otter swimming away across our boat basin.
Some passengers have also been lucky enough to see Otters on our boat trips. Perhaps the most amusing sighting came when an otter ran behind a lady tending to her riverside garden in Wroxham village without her even noticing it – though all our passengers did! The best sighting, however, came just outside Barton House in Wroxham, where a female otter swam right beside our trip boat – so everyone got a great view!
Another great sight in our boat basin, pictured by one of our skippers Tobi below, is a beautiful Eyed Hawk Moth in our boat basin. If provoked the insect flashes its hindwings, which are decorated with intense blue and black ‘eyes’ on a pinkish background.
But perhaps our favourite sighting of an insect is Norfolk’s iconic Swallowtail butterfly – which we have seen on some of our trips on Woodbastwick reach. It’s Britain’s largest butterfly, with a swallow like forked tail, but is only found on the Broads because its caterpillar can only eat a plant called milk parsley, which will only live in Norfolk’s reed and sedge beds.
Words and pictures – Oliver Franzen
With so many wonderful sights on the river why not join us for a boat trip or hire a dayboat and explore on your own. Tel: 01603 782 207.
We are now over a week into May, and the changes are happening daily. Gone are the yellow flowers of daffodils and marsh marigold, replaced by whites of hawthorn and elder on the banks with delicate flowers of Jack by the Hedge appearing where clearance work was carried out in the winter.
From the vantage point of the wheelhouse on our trip boats, the skippers have a good view of our nesting birds and have been keeping an eye on a few. In particular, there are seven Great Crested grebes nests along the banks and sheltered in the broads.
However, it was none of these to hatch first.
At the beginning of the week, on Salhouse Broad in a distance corner, two grebes were seen swimming around with well camouflaged small fuzzy little shapes around them. Upon closer inspection, it turned out there were three ‘grebelets’, so tiny and stripy, looking for protection on mother’s back. One of our day boat lads, Matt, managed to capture them on camera whilst out exploring.
Grebes spend about four weeks incubating their eggs, so we should see some of the other nesting grebes hatch out some young soon.
Perhaps some of the cutest young birds out right now are the cygnets. First spotted on Saturday, a small family of swans bearing two cygnets near Decoy Staithe were being most adorable as we passed; one cygnet was already sheltered between mum’s wings and as we watched from the Queen of the Broads, its sibling struggled and kicked to join it in the comfort of the feathery enclosure.
Just a few days later, our skipper Richard spotted the largest family of cygnets we have seen for a while emerging from one of the dykes in the village. Here the swans have successfully hatched out eight cygnets! They seem to be using the same territory as a family of six last year, so we’ll keep an eye on them and see how they do. On Wednesday skipper Tobi reported only three of this family swimming around, but that’s because the other five were all hitching a ride on mum’s back!
Our river trips are something of a Great Crested Grebe nest and ‘newly hatched’ safari now.
In addition to Great Crested Grebes nesting on Salhouse Little Broad and a river bend in Woodbastwick, there are at least five Grebes nests on Salhouse Broad. Remarkably four of these are very close together in what should be called “Grebe Bay”, near a spit of trees at the top end of the broad (shown below)!
Our passengers have loved seeing so many Grebe nests close together and watching the male Great Crested Grebes tirelessly carrying sticks and vegetation to add to the nest.
Grebes nests are particularly interesting because the diving birds rarely come to land, instead preferring to build a floating nest for their eggs and then carry their young around on their backs when they hatch.
The first of these pictures shows a Great Crested Grebe nesting on the edge of the trees on “Grebe Bay”, while the second shot shows another Grebe nesting only a few feet behind it further into the trees.
This area of Salhouse Broad is full of plenty of other birds too. Most notably the picture below shows a Common Tern nesting on the branches – one of the first of these agile little birds to have returned for the summer after its long migration from Africa.
A great highlight of heading out on the water at this time of year is seeing the dozens of adorable goslings and ducklings.
This picture shows the Greylag Goose family that we featured a few weeks ago on the blog nesting on Wroxham Island. Having hatched their gosling on the island they moved them to a riverside garden for a week and are now taking them on their first swimming lessons at the bottom end of Wroxham village.
A primary reason that Greylags are the most common geese on the Broads is because they take such good care of their young. Sadly, ducklings are not usually cared for as well by their mothers but this mallard seems to be doing a good job of it.
Our skippers Richard and Tobi have reported seeing a swan carrying newly hatched cygnets on her back in Wroxham village. A wonderful sight which we will keep you posted on as soon as we manage to take a picture of it.
Finally, we suspect that a Kestrel is nesting near Wroxham Island, where we have seen it displaying its trademark fast wing beat hover a lot lately. We will leave you with this picture, capturing the moment the Kestrel rested on a tree after being mobbed by gulls.
Pictures and words – Oliver Franzen
With so much to see on the river at the moment why not join us for a “Grebes nest safari” on our regular boat trips or hire a dayboat and explore on your own. Tel: 01603 782 207.
The Broads Tours team were all driven quackers on Sunday by the mystery of a very unusual duck, which appeared just outside the dayboat moorings.
One of our skippers, Tobi, managed to take this photograph of the bird, which rangers at RSPB Strumpshaw have just kindly identified for us. It turned out to be a female Bufflehead duck, a species that is usually only found in America where it nests in woodpecker holes!
So why would there be a Bufflehead duck in Wroxham?
The probable answer is a little closer to home. The RSPB’s ranger, Leanne, said that Bufflehead ducks would be very unlikely to migrate as far as the UK and suggested that it might be an escapee from a private collection.
Having looked more closely at the photograph of the Bufflehead duck there does appear to be a yellow ring around the it’s foot suggesting it is indeed an escapee. The duck has since disappeared, so we will never know for sure.
The dayboat moorings have also seen a lot of otter activity, with the dayboat team reporting that otters have been trying to prey on both a cygnet and a full-sized swan – both of which fortunately escaped!
Elsewhere on the yard we had a female otter come into our wet boatshed while the engineers and boatbuilders were at work. And one of our skippers, Oli, also saw an otter pop up just in front of the bows of his boat near Salhouse Little Broad during a river trip.
In other news the Canada goose which we featured nesting on Wroxham Island in the last blog has now hatched some adorable goslings.
Here is the lovely family on a nearby riverside garden.
Finally we will finish the blog with this picture of a swan nesting, taken by one of our skippers Oli at the Ted Ellis Nature reserve in Surlingham.
Written by Oliver Franzen
With so much wildlife around at the moment why not come on a boat trip and see it for yourself? For more information call 01603 782 207.