Today’s trip to Washington Wetland Centre was intrepid to say the least.
The UK is currently covered by a blanket of snow with temperatures hovering below the zero mark.
OK, it’s not exactly the Arctic or Canada but the snow has fallen crisp and deep and even.
We wrapped up like Nanook in full Eskimo kit to test the conditions at Washington Wildlife Reserve near Sunderland in northern England.
It was bloomin’ cold and bracing but worth the effort to see how the wildlife was coping in the bleak midwinter.
On the reserve
Life on the reserve was much quieter than normal although the geese and ducks seemed to be enjoying themselves.
Over at the visitor centre there were great views from the main viewing area of the Cranes, Barnacle Geese and Goldeneye ducks.
All were staying close to the buildings for some weather protection, extra warmth, food and shelter.
Out on on the reserve, it was the geese who seemed to be taking the snow in their stride. They seemed happy trudging around in the snow and feeding on the reserve’s wetlands.
A pair of pretty white Smew were bobbing around on the ponds whilst a group of sociable Red-breasted and Nene Geese were quick to make friends with us.
The Nene Geese, once nearly extinct, are resident on the reserve year-round but the snowy weather is a far cry from the sunny climate of their Hawaiian homeland.
Over the way, a couple of black-beaked Trumpeter Swans were walking on thin ice on one of the frozen ponds, looking distinctly non-plussed.
Otters like it hotter
One animal that I wasn’t expecting to find out on a snowy, freezing cold day was the reserve’s otter.
Short-clawed Asian Otters are more inclined to prefer warmer weather but the centre’s new pair were out and about, even if they were confused by the white stuff.
The duo watched from a platform well above the ground, looking baffled about what to do in the snow storm.
First they were inside, then they were outside – the duo weren’t sure what to do in the wintery conditions.
These cute critters were curious enough to venture out for a few runs over the compacted ice, but soon retreated to the comfort of their indoor den – and who can blame them.
I love otters. I blame Ring of Bright Water and Tarka the Otter which I read as a child – they kick-started my interest in these amazing creatures.
This pair have been brought up in captivity which means that they are highly social and very curious.
Seeing them close up and watching their interaction with humans is a real thrill on a bone-chilling day. It’s hard not to be captivated by these two gorgeous animals.
The reserve also has wild otters which live along the River Wear, but none were to be seen today.
I found it hard to tear myself away from the otters as they played in the snow and then quickly retreated to their house. A bit like us humans, I guess…
Elsewhere on the reserve there were very few people mad enough to have ventured out! We only saw six other hardy souls on the whole trip – and most of them were shivering and hurrying back to the visitor centre for a welcome hot drink.
Even Gordon the Warden was inside, looking out over the reserve with his binoculars.
Down in the woods all was quiet, silent and frozen with few signs of birds, other then the occasional hardy Blackbird and a few Fieldfares on the snow-dusted meadows.
On my last visit I was thrilled to see a Water Vole whizzing across the path close to a pond but no such luck in today’s wintery weather.
Eider Ducks were out in force though. Not surprising given their downy coats and fluffy, weather-proof appearance.
No wonder their feathers are still popular for keeping humans warm in Eider-down duvets.
One of the larger ponds was busy with a group of Tufted Ducks and Mallards who looked almost as cold as I felt.
By now my hands were pretty much frozen and turning blue (note to self – bring thicker winter gloves next time).
Over at the Wader Lake there was a complete freeze-out and little sign of any life, not even any ducks or herons.
Snow had blocked the bottom paths so we headed into the woodland bird hide where the trees and feeders were buzzing with Great Tits, Coal Tits, and Blue Tits.
Bullfinches were flying around in abundance, looking stunning with their bright red chests against the blinding, white landscape.
A Tree Creeper was seen running up a tree (if birds can ‘run’), perhaps to keep warm whilst a large flock of pretty Long-tailed Tits huddled on the bark looking for slim pickings.
A pair of young, greenish-yellow Siskin sat on the perch of a bird feeder, glued to the seeds on offer.
On the way back to the visitor centre, we called in at the bird nursery which is normally quiet at this time of year.
It came as a shock to see five large baby Chilean flamingos enjoying the indoor heat before being reunited with their group in the spring.
I’d imagined some small fluffy chicks but these specimens were about three feet tall with big beaks, though still lacking their full plumage and pink colour.
Although they were curious about us, I was pleased there was a sheet of glass between us when I saw the strength of those sharp beaks pecking away.
Cranes in winter
Heading back to the Waterside Cafe it was fun to watch the graceful Eurasian Cranes strutting their stuff and preening themselves.
These large, grey and white birds are particularly fabulous with their striking plumage and scarlet red crown.
Like many of the reserve’s wildlife they didn’t look too impressed by the weather conditions but were making the best of it during the cold spell.
Normally, they can be quite territorial and aggressive, but today they seemed happy to chill out – literally!
Look at the picture below and you’ll see one on the island in the centre of the pond, standing around conserving energy.
It was at this point, I decided what a good idea that might be myself.
The weather had finally defeated us and we headed back indoors to warm up and defrost!
Tammy’s practical tips
Washington Wetland Centre is located on the north bank of the River Wear, overlooked by the Penshaw Monument. It is easily accessible by car and public transport.
Head towards Washington town centre in Pattinson, four miles from the A1(M), one mile from the A19 and signposted off the A195, A19, A182 and A1231 Washington Highway.
Sunderland rail station is a 15-minute car/bus ride away. The Lime 8 bus (travelling between Stanley and Sunderland) stops at Waterview Park (just a short walk from WWT Washington) from Monday-Saturday and can be caught as a connection from The Galleries bus station in Washington town centre.
The reserve is open daily, 364 days a year (closed 25 December). No dogs are allowed on site, other than guide dogs. There is free car parking.
The centre has level access and hard-surfaced paths with tarmac or gravel on its main routes and minor paths.
Visit at different times of the year for a variety of wildlife experiences.
Spring is one of my favourite seasons with hatching chicks and bird courting rituals. Whilst visiting the nursery a few years ago I saw a chick breaking through its egg and emerging into the world – a wonderful moment.
During early spring the reserve’s herons perform courtship ‘dances’ in the heronry and this is followed by nesting and then raising the chicks which can be seen from the bird hides on the Wader Lake.
The last few years have seen Avocets taking up residence on the Wader Lake with their chicks (spring onwards).
In spring and summer the reserve becomes chick-tastic! The Nene Hawaiian geese give birth to their chicks in the spring whilst the wading birds follow shortly afterwards.
Warden walks around the reserve are held regularly whilst there are also talks and events with wildlife experts.
Don’t miss the Asian otters being fed every day at 11:00 and 15:00.
Top tourist tips
Further up the coast there are good bird watching opportunities and walks at Whitburn beach and Marsden Rock. Beach combers can climb down the steep stairs (or cheat and take the lift) from the Marsden Grotto pub down to the beach.
Also nearby is the National Trust’s Washington Old Hall, a Jacobean manor house with links to US President George Washington.