Watching long lines of wild swans flighting into Welney at dusk, with a blood-red sun reflected in the flooded washes, is one of the most incredible wildlife spectacles on offer in Britain. Add in a supporting cast of several thousand wigeon, mallard, teal and pintail, plus the opportunity to watch all this from a heated and spacious hide, and you can see why this Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust centre is almost as popular with people as it is with birds.
Up to 9,000 swans congregate here in mid-winter. The great majority are Bewick’s swans from Russia, and they spend the day foraging in the surrounding fens. In contrast, most of the area’s 2,000 or so Icelandic whoopers remain on the reserve. At dusk the Bewick’s draw in to roost, lured also by the free hand-out of grain offered by the refuge.
For the best viewing arrive about an hour before dusk and then stay on until the 6.30pm floodlit feed (every Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday evening until 24 February). Admission: £5.85 for adults, WWT members free. For further details see the WWT website. Map reference TL 546 944.
The expansive mud-flats of the Wash make it one of Britain’s most important estuaries for wintering wildfowl and waders, with 100,000 or more birds present throughout the winter. Snettisham not only offers extensive views out over the Wash itself, but the chance to view thousands of waders roosting at high tide on the disused gravel pits that now form an RSPB reserve.
Knots generally provide the greatest entertainment, and to see 30,000 of these waders twisting, turning and rising like plumes of smoke over the mud-flats is great stuff. Impressive flocks of bar-tailed godwits sometimes numbering 5,000 or more add to the spectacle, along with shelducks, sanderlings and grey plovers. To see the waders at their best, a visit on an incoming tide is essential. Also, thousands of pink-footed geese roost on the Wash throughout the winter, and they can be seen flighting from their roost on the mud-flats at dawn and returning at dusk.
From the A149 at Snettisham take the beach road and follow the RSPB signs. There are no charges. Map reference TF 650 328.
There are few places in Europe where it is possible to get as close to wild geese as Lady Anne’s Drive at Holkham. Here, many thousands of pink-footed geese can be seen close to the road, often grazing in company with smaller numbers of white-fronted geese from Siberia and a few brent, plus many thousands of wigeon. The goose flocks are now so used to people that it’s possible to watch them as close as 30yd away without disturbing them, despite standing in full view.
The great flocks of pinks only started returning to Holkham around 30 years ago, having been scared off when an anti-aircraft firing range was established at nearby Stiffkey in 1938, followed by wartime ploughing of the freshwater marshes. Today Holkham is managed as a National Nature Reserve, and as many as 100,000 geese can be found at peak periods on the 10,000-acre reserve.
Holkham National Nature Reserve extends from Burnham Norton to Blakeney. Lady Anne’s Drive offers the best viewing and the opportunity to walk to the coast where, in winter, good numbers of red-breasted mergansers, eiders and scoters can usually be seen.
Access is free to numerous footpaths on the reserve. For further details visit Holkham’s website. Map reference TF890 450.
It was the big flocks of white-fronted geese wintering at Slimbridge that inspired Sir Peter Scott to establish the original Severn Wildfowl Trust here in 1946. An added attraction to Scott was the regular presence of one or two of the much rarer lesser white-fronts in the flocks. Though Slimbridge remains the most important wintering site for white-fronts in Britain, recent years have seen smaller numbers visiting the area. This is almost certainly due to milder weather allowing the birds to remain in the Low Countries throughout the winter.
Though there may be fewer geese, the flocks are still impressive, while thousands of other wildfowl ensure that winter visits to Slimbridge are always rewarding. The Bewick’s swans arrive in mid October, but most have left by late February.
Slimbridge is the most visitor-friendly wildfowl refuge in Britain, with hides and observatories ensuring close views of the wild birds, plus the added attraction of the largest captive wildfowl collection in the world. It is open daily except Christmas Day. Entrance costs £7.45 (WWT members free). Map reference SO 723 048.
You need a wet winter with plenty of flooding to view the Somerset Levels at their best, but when conditions are right it’s possible to see thousands of wildfowl and waders here. Teal are exceptionally numerous, and it’s easy to mistake distant flocks for starlings, so aerobatic are they. Wigeon are invariably present in large numbers, too, as are some of the biggest flocks of golden plovers and lapwings in Britain.
The Levels cover an extensive area and finding the birds is not always easy. One of the most reliable sites is the RSPB’s West Sedgemoor reserve, where considerable habitat management has been undertaken to make the grazing meadows more attractive to wintering wildfowl.
This winter the RSPB is offering guided winter wildfowl walks on the reserve. Booking is essential: see the website. Cost: RSPB members £1.50, non-members £4. Map reference ST361 238.
Nearby, the Somerset Wildlife Trusts Westhay Moor also offers good numbers of wintering wildfowl. Stay on at dusk to see the remarkable starling roost which, last winter, held an estimated six million birds. Access is free. Map reference ST 458 438.
STRANGFORD LOUGH, NORTHERN IRELAND
This large and impressive sea lough has long been famous for its wintering ducks, geese and waders. Over 40,000 waders may be present in January, but the lough is most famous for its pale-bellied brent geese. These birds breed in the Canadian Arctic and Greenland, and up to 15,000 birds congregate on the lough in late October and early November. Many will disperse to other Irish estuaries farther south, but several thousand remain here until the spring.
Intriguingly, the rise in the numbers of brent using the lough may have been responsible for a marked decline in wigeon, for the two compete for the same food, zostera (eel-grass). Thirty years ago 20,000 wigeon wintered here, but now the number is around 2,000. Other wintering wildfowl include shelducks, pintail and shoveler.
Due to its size, there are a number of viewing points for the lough. Castle Espie WWT centre on the west shore has hides
overlooking the mud-flats and offers some of the best viewing. Entrance costs £5.50 (WWT members free), and it is open every day of the year except 23, 24 and 25 December. See the WWT website..
Islay is the island of geese, for from October to April close to 50,000 barnacles and 15,000 white-fronts are attracted to its green pastures. Such numbers invariably include a few surprises: genuine vagrant Canada and snow geese are recorded annually. Both the barnacles and the white-fronts summer in Greenland, but while the fortunes of the former continue to rise, the numbers of white-fronts have been falling this century.
There are many fine viewing places on the island but one of the best is Loch Gruinart RSPB reserve, where the grass is managed to both attract and support the maximum numbers of geese throughout the winter. Excellent viewing is possible from roads across the island. From Bruichladdich you can watch the flocks whiffling down, with a backdrop of the Paps of Jura, but there are closer views from Bridgend. In the evening the most exciting viewing is at Loch Indaal, a narrow and shallow sea loch where many of the geese roost.
There is a visitor centre, open daily. See the RSPB website. Map reference NR 275 672.
MARTIN MERE, LANCASHIRE
With around 100,000 wintering wildfowl and 150,000 waders at peak periods, the Ribble estuary is rivalled only by the Wash for its importance. Pink-footed geese and wigeon are the most numerous, but impressive flocks of lapwings, golden plovers and black-tailed godwits add to the interest.
The pinkfeet are highly mobile, moving around the area throughout the winter, but there are a number of sites where you can expect to encounter big flocks. The Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust’s centre at Martin Mere attracts internationally important numbers of wildfowl, and provides excellent watching from 10 hides. A bonus is the chance for close encounters with both Bewick’s and whooper swans.
Martin Mere is open daily except Christmas Day, and entry costs £7.95 (WWT members free). Visit the website. Map reference SD 428 145. Closer to the estuary is the RSPBs Marshside reserve. Its vast acres are
managed by grazing cattle to keep the sward at the right length for the geese and wigeon. The reserve has two glazed hides, one of which is heated, plus a footpath along the old sea wall that provides excellent viewing. Access is free. Map reference SD 355 202.
The entire Svalbard population of barnacle geese winters on the salt flats and merses of the Solway. The past 60 years have seen the population recover from an all-time low of 500 birds to the current 25,000, and in late autumn and early winter the majority of them graze the Wildfowl and Wetland Trust’s 1,400-acre refuge at Caerlaverock. Tower hides, observatories and several small hides allow you to get close to the geese without disturbing them, giving excellent photographic opportunities. A wintering flock of whooper swans is an added attraction.
Pink-footed geese also winter on the refuge, their numbers increasing steadily as the winter progresses. Though the barnacles may disperse in the New Year, thousands can still be seen on the refuge until mid April.
Caerlaverock is open every day except Christmas Day, and entry costs £5.50
(WWT members free). See the website. Map reference NY 051 656.
Also offering great wildfowl viewing is the nearby RSPB reserve of Mersehead. Its wet grasslands attract flocks of barnacles and pinkfeet, plus wigeon, teal and pintail. Entrance is on donation £1 is suggested. See the website. Map reference NX 928 566.
LOCH OF STRATHBEG, ABERDEENSHIRE
Up to a fifth of the world’s population of pink-footed geese pause annually on this loch, which is a vital staging post for huge numbers of migrating wildfowl. Peak numbers of pinkfeet can be seen in the early autumn, when there may be as many as 80,000 present, along with large numbers of Icelandic greylags and barnacles (the latter en route from Svalbard to the Solway). The best time to visit is either at dawn or dusk as it is the time when the geese flight to and from their roost the viewing can be truly spectacular.
Most of the geese move farther south as winter approaches, but the loch remains important for whooper swans and sea ducks such as scaup and long-tailed ducks, while smew and Slavonian grebes are also recorded regularly here.
As at all RSPB reserves, visitors are well catered for. There is a panoramic tower hide that offers fine views of the goose roost and is open from dawn to dusk. The reserve’s three other hides are reached from a car park on the nearby Crimond Airfield. You have to leave the airfield by 4pm to avoid being locked in. Access is free. Visit the website. Map reference NK 055 577.
THE YTHAN ESTUARY, ABERDEENSHIRE
As many as 6,000 eiders, our biggest sea ducks, can be found on the Ythan estuary in the summer and though most go south to the Tay in winter, usually at least 1,000 remain. They are joined by flocks of pinkfeet and greylags around 10,000 is quite usual along with many ducks, from goldeneye to long-tails. Whooper swans are usually present and big flocks of both common and velvet scoters can often be seen close offshore. In addition, there are always thousands of waders, with redshank, lapwings, dunlin and golden plovers most numerous.
The Ythan not only offers beautiful scenery, but it’s easy to get great views of the birds. The best place to view the outer estuary, and especially the eiders, is from Newburgh golf course. Visit the website. Map reference NK 004 247.