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.
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.
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….
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.
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.
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!
On Wroxham Island increasing numbers of Cormorants are gathering amongst the trees as shown in these pictures set amongst a stormy sky.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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!
There was also another favourite Broadland bird fishing from a branch precariously close to Crocodiles – The Common Kingfisher.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.