Welney January 2018


The group regards any winter visit to Welney on the Ouse Washes as ‘Birding for Softies’. The expansive views over Lady Fen from the comfort of the Wigeon Café allow close sightings of hundreds of whooper swans, mute swans, geese and ducks; even a great white egret made a brief appearance. The feeders held large numbers of tree sparrows, and goldfinches, the odd house sparrow; a few reed buntings flitted amongst the reeds.

After a welcome coffee, we were treated to a very interesting talk about the decline of the Bewick swan in the UK. Tony Winchester outlined the decline in numbers, especially in Ireland where none have overwintered since 2015. Major hazards the birds face on migration from Arctic Russia are: shooting, mainly but not exclusively in Russia. It is legal to shoot whooper swans in Russia but illegal to shoot Bewick swans. Eighty percent of Russian hunters cannot tell the difference between the two species. Power line collision is a common cause of death, as is the ingestion of lead shot from gamebird shooting. The birds graze over fields used for shooting and take in the lead shot in mistake for grit used to digest their food in the gizzard.

Climate change could be a major driver in the decline of this swan in the UK. It is perfectly feasible that warmer winters in the Low Countries mean that birds see no need to migrate further south and west. The north western population of swans may also be trickling birds into a more southerly route down to Greece and Turkey, instead of more westerly to the UK. The ‘Jury is Out’ but a multinational action group is concentrating their research on finding definitive answers to this conundrum.

The group then retired to the large glass-fronted, heated hide looking out over the Washes which were flooded after recent rains. Here assistant warden David gave another talk on the work of Peter Scott and the WWT. He went on to describe the birds assembled in front of us and waiting to be fed. Common birds here were both mute and whooper swans, as well as pochard, (mostly males), mallard and tufted ducks. Godwits were present in the distance but difficult to find and identify until they flew then settled down again. Off David went in his dry suit to throw grains to the birds from a wheelbarrow as he waded below the hide. The barrow floated on a car inner tube!

Our saturation in the winter birds of Welney was followed by a very indifferent lunch in the café before a few bought gifts from the shop and we trundled off home. Although the day had been damp, dank and misty our visit and talk threw some light into an otherwise miserable outlook. A good day was had by all.

Birds: Whooper and mute swans, pochard, tufted, mallard, and wigeon ducks, shelduck, brent and greylag geese, coot, moorhen, BH gull, lapwings, godwits, reed buntings, tree and house sparrows, great tit, blue tit, goldfinches, blackbird, wood pigeon, crow, great white egret (glimpsed), magpie and pheasant. 26 species.

Peter Heath