Winter Wildlife Walks: An Account by Ken Davies

Osprey Project Education Officer and author of the ‘Ozzie’ series of books, Ken Davies, has written this account of winter visits to Rutland Water Nature Reserve.

When I was a boy I loved books with stories about groups of young people who simply went out for long days in the countryside, on foot or a bicycle, taking sandwiches and an old fashioned vacuum flask, perhaps a map, but nothing else, except the instruction to ‘be home by teatime’. What adventures they had – climbing trees, fording streams, encountering wild animals and birds, outwitting gamekeepers and farmers, watching steam trains on remote branch lines, and finally lying exhausted on river banks and in woodland glades before finally making for home after a day of splendid exploits!

Recently I have sought out a few of those titles again, with evocative titles like ‘The Blue Feather Club’, ‘Explorers Awheel’, and ‘Billy’s Country Holiday’. Great memories of days long ago, before the restrictions of modern times arrived to put an end to such independence and proximity to nature for so many young people. However, it is good to see recently that many families are trying hard to repair this detachment from nature, and here at Rutland Water activities for children and families are proving ever more popular, especially at key times like half-term holidays and weekends.

Some of the books in Ken’s collection

Last September, when the Lyndon Centre closed following the departure of the Ospreys and other migrant species, several of us were suffering the usual withdrawal symptoms as we completed our final Sunday afternoon shift in Manton Bay and climbed away up the hill, contemplating the long winter ahead, the dreary short days with early nightfall, the seemingly endless wait for spring to leap into life again. ‘Wait a minute’, Barrie G said ‘let’s shake off this seasonal depression, and do something positive : this is Rutland Water, after all.’

So, the seed was sewn and quickly sprouted into a an exciting idea : on the second Sunday in every month from October to February, we would lead an afternoon walk to areas of the nature Reserve we rarely visit in the summer months. Starting at Egleton, we would cover as much ground as we could over the five months, visiting different lagoons, different hides, and seeing (we hoped) many different species of bird, mammal, reptile, insect and plant. We would go in all weathers, armed only with ‘sandwiches and a vacuum flask,’ and perhaps a map of all the intricate pathways and new hides and lagoons. Sounds familiar? It certainly did to me (see paragraph 1!), and I couldn’t wait for the first winter walk in October. But would anyone want to come with us?

We needn’t have worried! Osprey Ambassador Sam and his Mum Jo and brother Alex were well up for it from the start, last year’s Osprey Information Officer Holly quickly came on board, Education Officers Pete and Jackie said they would come in between trips to Romania and skiing in the Italian Alps, ecologist Abigail would be there when University commitments allowed, Chris Wood and Diane would come when not seeking wintering Ospreys in Africa or Spain, and Wild Horizons member Hannah would join us when work allowed. Wow! ‘Shall I call this an event?’ said Egleton staff member Sarah Box when we assembled in the gallery upstairs for our first walk. Well, it certainly was ‘an event’ for us, and over the winter our monthly walks have been keenly anticipated and yielded sightings and adventures for everyone.  We enjoyed peaceful sunny late autumn sunsets, endured stinging winter hailstorms and horizontal rain, sploshed through mud, skated over icy paths, sat shivering in draughty hides, sheltered in shadowy woods and exalted on the summit of Lax Hill. We revived ourselves with hot drinks from thermos flasks, selections of sandwiches, cakes and cookies. We even celebrated with Jo’s delicious mince pies and shortbread on December 21st, whilst watching an American Wigeon from Smew Hide.

So what have we achieved on our series of Rutland winter walks? Fortunately our reliable recorder and all-round naturalist Barrie took part in every single walk, and single-handedly entered every bird sighting onto an Excel spreadsheet, and from there onto BTO Birdtrack. Mammal, plant and invertebrate records have also been noted. Holly has recently taken part in courses on mosses and liverworts, and peered knowledgeably at fine and delicate specimens we encountered.  In one hide, Abi was on hand to take a superb picture of a large cluster of ladybirds wintering in a top corner hibernaculum. We looked at galls, fungi, lichens – everything, in fact, that seemed interesting.

Abi’s ladybird image

But for most of us it was the birds which thrilled us most. In October we witnessed the arrival of Redwings and Fieldfares in large numbers, we watched the steady increase in numbers of wildfowl, and we marvelled at the emergence of the finely plumaged drake Pintail, Shoveler, Teal and Pochard as the year turned and they began to display to their more soberly clad females. Walking back from Lax Hill in November, Sam suddenly pointed up and we were all thrilled to see Pink-footed Geese, flying high in a perfect ‘V’, and calling quietly to one another as they headed south-east over the reservoir. Great White Egrets were present on virtually every occasion, stalking in the shallows or flapping languidly from one lagoon to another. In the leafless woods colour was provided by groups of Bullfinches, the males proud and resplendent with their red bellies and grey mantles, the females all pastel and buff – both displaying the brilliant white rump as they bounced away from us. Goldfinches, Linnets, Reed Buntings, four species of Tit and an occasional brilliant Kingfisher all added their hues to this rich winter palette.

For many in the group, the sight of two Marsh Harriers quartering the reed bed alongside Lagoon 3 was a highlight of the winter, their tawny crowns and dark plumage recalling long summer days in Norfolk or Suffolk. And on the same day a confiding Water Rail repeatedly walked within a few metres of us. Dashing Sparrowhawk and threatening Peregrine caused chaos among resting wildfowl flocks, and on the way home one evening a ghostly Barn Owl left a lasting image in our minds. Not content with merely identifying over 80 avian species over the winter, we always noted unusual behaviour, and on our most recent visit to Lagoon 4, we witnessed male and female Goosander performing their mating ritual, with the female adopting the submissive attitude by lying flat on the water, with just her bill and the top of her back above the surface. At first the drake ignored her, nonchalantly doing a spot of preening, but eventually her insistent solicitations had the desired effect and he performed as required. ‘He’s noticed her now’, someone said.

The goosander male and female

Apparently the smaller sawbill present on the lagoon, the Smew, perform the same ritual, but while we watched on that day the stunning drakes, unmistakeable in pure white with black vermiculations, and the red-headed females, contented themselves with occasional amorous flurries – a reminder that in just a few weeks they will be bringing up broods in their far northern breeding grounds. For me, this hour spent in the company of these fine ducks was the definite highlight of the winter – but everyone will have their own ‘champagne moment’. Maybe for some it was the unseasonal Common Sandpiper delicately probing on the shore of Heron Bay, or perhaps the moment on the track, just a few days ago, when we looked up to see thousands of piebald Lapwing in the air above us, wheeling about before selecting a safe landing place. Thrilling, spectacular, awesome, or, as Sam put it, just plain ‘Wow!’

3 female and 1 male smew

Of course we looked for mammals too – or evidence of their presence – and we examined likely hiding places for voles, shrews and mice, as well as peering hopefully down holes in banks and beside tree stumps. Our strike rate was not brilliant, but on our last walk we had a fantastic piece of luck. Sitting in the hide overlooking Lagoon 3, watching the ducks, grebes and an elusive Snipe, we had just shared out the last of the chocolate biscuits when a call from the other end of the hide had us all on the edge of our seats and furiously scanning the water in front of us : ‘Otter!’ And there it was, not too far away, swimming from right to left, making that distinctive ‘V’ ripple in the water as its head broke the surface, submerging again with a flip of its tail, making a shape reminiscent of that famous old picture of the supposed Loch Ness Monster. ‘What’s that in its mouth?’ said someone. ‘Looks like a Coot’, came the reply. A Coot? Surely not. Well, why not? There were hundreds out on the lagoon, and they certainly gave the otter a wide berth, gathering together in tight-packed rafts and even taking flight to a nearby island on more than one occasion. The Otter kept on swimming, breaching and submerging as it went, still carrying its prey and flipping its tail. It had us spellbound – a first sighting at Rutland Water for all of us, and a lifetime first for some. Eventually it reached a creek bounded by leaning willows, and disappeared into the reed bed. We looked at one another, and smiled. Later on, I consulted a book on Otters*, and found this sentence : ‘Water birds are the most frequent avian prey, particularly coots, moorhens and ducks.’  Chocolate biscuits never tasted so good.

So ended our final scheduled winter walk. By the time of our next date in March, Lyndon Centre will be open again and Barrie and I will commence our twelfth season of regular Sunday afternoon shifts in Wader Scrape hide. We look back on our monthly outings around the nature reserve with great pleasure, not just for the birds and other wildlife, but also for the brilliant companionship, the friendly exchanges, the shared pleasures that each walk produced. A small group of people, ages separated by six decades, with varying skills, knowledge and expertise, but united by a passion for the world of nature, and all equally thrilled by unexpected encounters and brilliant spectacles. The waters of Rutland Water, the green fields, the damp woodland paths, the tangled hedgerows – they have all yielded up some of their secrets, which will stay in the attics of our memories for many a year.

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*Otters, by Paul Chanin (Whittet Books, 1993)