Summer wildlife watching is a bigger treat than usual this year because the season has been so late in arriving in its full glory.
This year’s wet and cold spring has meant that summer has been slow to pick up momentum. So my weekend trip to Washington Wetlands provided a great opportunity to see how nature has been coping with the erratic UK climate.
It’s been six months since my winter visit to Washington at the height of the January freeze when the birds and animals shivered their way through snow and biting, icy temperatures.
But there has been a complete turnaround in recent weeks as finally the bright, sunny weather has arrived.
On this weekend’s visit I found the reserve looking great – it’s brilliant to see the birds with their chicks or sitting on nests.
This cute duckling is just one of the new arrivals, complete with fluffy down and a wobbly gait. It was pretty curious too and even posed for this photograph.
Many years ago I was lucky enough to see a chick bursting out of its egg at the reserve’s nursery. I’ve never forgotten the thrill of that special moment.
In fact ‘close encounters’ is what this reserve does so well in common with its sister site at Slimbridge in Gloucestershire.
In the ‘Close Encounters’ area of the reserve it was reassuring to see the birds in tip top condition after the winter and spring deluge.
These Ross’s Geese were putting on a great show… and creating a few ripples.
This North American bird isn’t a British resident but it’s great to see it in its full summer glory with brilliant snow white feathers.
I watched this highly entertaining group and became fascinated by their flock mentality. It soon became obvious who were the Alpha males in the group!
There were so many beauties to admire in the ‘formal’ section of the reserve including the unusual mohican-headed Hooded Mergansers (below).
She is plain brown and bears a punky, peaked ‘hairdo’ whilst the male has a bulbous black and white head which looks like it’s been puffed up by a bicycle pump.
The Hooded Merganser is a bird that shouts out ‘summer’ because this is the season when the male changes his plumage for the breeding season.
During breeding the male’s head, back and neck become black, and the bird develops a white crest on the back of the head that can be extended to attract mates.
Avocets and chicks
But it was down on the wild reserve that the serious action was to be seen on the Wader Lake with some great migrant birds including a record number of Avocets.
It was only a few years ago that the first Avocet pair flew into the Washington reserve and since then they’ve returned several times. Now it appears they’ve brought a few other friends with them.
I could hardly believe my eyes when I saw not one pair but seven adult avocets – and what’s more, they had eight chicks in tow.
By my reckoning, that’s 15 avocets – a remarkable sight as far north as this.
Although I didn’t get a great view of the chicks, I did spot one quite big youngster hiding in the reed bed whilst the parents tip-toed gracefully through the waters looking for food.
It was a treat to see these attractive white and black patterned birds with curvy beaks. I love watching their graceful movement – they almost look like stilt walkers on water.
Elsewhere on Wader Lake there was a great selection of birds with their broods of chicks from Shelducks to Oystercatchers and Mallards.
Look carefully and you’ll see another elegant bird, the distinctive Common Tern with its bright red beak and ribbon-like tail feathers (pictured below).
I adore watching these birds hover and land like precision helicopter pilots – although they aren’t so popular with the Avocets who chase them ferociously to protect their territory!
Over at the herony on the opposide side of the Wader Lake there’s another summer nursery but of a very different sort.
A dozen pairs of Herons can be seen in the heronry. These large wading birds are so big and heavy that I’m always amazed they can get off the ground and fly so gracefully.
Up in the trees the herons were busy sitting on their nests and it was a complete thrill to spot their chicks. Every so ofter the chicks poked their heads up and back down like bobbing apples.
Along the lakeside yet more herons were keeping patrol and hunting for fish dinners to take back to their hungry chicks.
Inside the nursery
Many birds at Washington, like the herons and geese, are still nesting but some species need an extra helping hand from the wardens.
A trip to the duckery was one of the highlights of my visit… and what a great time of year to see the chicks and goslings.
These gangly geese are still remarkably downy despite having grown quite tall and rangy… as well as getting inquisitive!
Some of newer arrivals were to be found in the reserve’s hatchery incubators.
There were a group of adorable, dark brown, downy eider chicks – and in the next unit these golden-coloured goslings won my vote for favourite fluffy bundles.
Leaving the duckery I decided to drop into the flamingo enclosure.
I had a good reason for checking out these birds because back in January I’d seen five flamingo chicks in the nursery’s incubator units.
The reserve’s flock of 38 Chilean flamingos had failed to produce chicks themselves for several seasons so flamingo chicks were brought in from the Slimbridge reserve in September 2012, while still inside their eggs!
When they hatched, these five bundles of fluff looked adorable but I couldn’t help wondering how they’d integrate with the other birds. Now I had my answer… six months later.
Frankie, Nico, Fran, Phil and Flo – the famous five chicks – have finally moved in with their new family after being hand-reared by the reserve’s wardens.
Now standing tall, the young birds have been introduced as part of a plan to enhance the flock’s chances of future breeding success.
They five chicks have certainly fitted in – in fact, I couldn’t pick them out from the older adult group in this picture!
Conservation and birds
The flamingos are one of many conservation projects taking place at Washington.
Washington Wetlands is part of a group of wildlife and wetland reserves across the UK which also includes Slimbridge, Martin Mere and the London Wetlands Centre.
The brainchild of Sir Peter Scott, the famous conservationist, they strive to protect and restore wetlands and undertake important conservation work.
Wetlands are one of the most threatened habitats on the planet so it’s great to see conservation work in action especially over the summer.
The Hawaiian Goose – or Nene – is one of the many birds that the Wildlife and Wetlands Trust has helped to bring back from the brink of extinction.
I love walking through their enclosure because these sociable birds are brilliant to be around. I thought this one (above) was going to eat the camera bag but that’s another story!
Not all the birds in the Close Encounters section of the reserve are threatened species; some provide a snapshot of wildlife around the globe and encourage us to think about the importance of conservation.
These Black-necked Swans are from South America but seem to have acclimatised to their UK home.
Summer also delivers an explosion of colour on the reserve… and highlights the importance of conserving plants as well as birds, mammals and amphibians.
Wild irises abound on the ponds and wetlands. Later in the summer dragonflies and damselflies will zoom over these ponds – sadly I was too early to watch their aerial display.
On the far side of the reserve, there’s a visual treat in store in the summer meadows with their carpets of late spring and summer flowers.
I looked across the fields and could almost imagine myself in Renoir’s garden, painting a landscape of flowers in the open air.
Instead, I had to be satisfied with lying on the ground to get an eye-level view of the flowers through my camera lens.
Beautiful purple orchids were to be seen in abundance, interspersed with butter cups and golden wild flowers. The orchid is what you might call ‘a stunner’.
June is the best month for orchids when they are in full bloom.
Orchids can be difficult to identify as they can vary in colour and markings. I’m still not sure if this one is an Early Purple or a Pyramidal Orchid – your suggestions are welcome!
Another new addition at Washington Wetlands is the otter enclosure in the main reserve, an example of conservation in action.
One of the delights of my winter visit to Washington was my first encounter with the captive Asian Short-Clawed Otters.
The short-clawed are the smallest of the otter species and are classified as vulnerable, hence the big conservation push.
I was curious to see what they’d been up to so imagine my surprise when I heard that the two juvenile males had become too aggressive with each other and had been switched to two new reserves.
In their place were Musa and Mimi, a young male and female pair, who are highly vocal and active, especially at feeding time.
It was a real goose bump moment when they came close, posing for the visitors before and during feeding time.
It was fascinating to watch these creatures eating their food – and in one golden moment the male shared his last piece of salmon with the female. A bit like sharing your last Rollo no doubt!
The big hope is that these two otters will breed and produce kits in the next couple of years, which would be a first for the Washington reserve.
Although this Asian pair are a non-native species there’s an important educational value in having these otters on display.
They’re housed in a really lovely enclosure which they seem to be loving and it’s a thrill to see these happy creatures.
Washington Wetland hopes that the native British otters, now living on the nearby River Wear, will visit the reserve’s new otter holt being built on the riverside so we’ll be able to see the wild variety too.
Down by the river
Also new this summer is the saline lagoon area at the bottom of the reserve on the banks of the River Wear.
Saline lagoons are amongst the UK’s rarest habitats. Their brackish nature with a mixture of fresh and sea water provide the perfect salinity levels for a range of important wetland species.
Mud islands have been built up along the middle of the lagoon topped with gravel to provide a nesting habitat for wading birds.
Although it’s early days, it’s great to witness this new development and go inside the bird hide although I only saw gulls and terns on this visit.
I’m sure that this will be the start of a great new adventure at Washington Wetlands.
There are excellent views down the River Wear in both directions and it’s hoped that otters will be attracted from the river to the new holt.
All this is a great sign that Washington Wetlands is making great strides to conserve the wildlife that we love…
Washington Wetlands is a top day out for wildlife lovers, birders and families with young kids because you can pick and mix whatever you’re interested in. There is genuinely something for everyone…
One thing’s for certain – another trip is called for later this summer to see how the chicks have made the transition from cute, fluffy bundles into awkward adolescents!
Tammy’s top tips
Washington Wetlands is located about 10 miles south east of Newcastle upon Tyne and about three miles west of Sunderland.
The reserve is open daily except Christmas Day so you can chart wildlife across the seasons. Opening times are 9:30-17:30 in summer and 9:30-4:30 in winter (admission fee). There’s also plenty of car parking.
Public transport is available on weekdays and Saturdays but almost non-existent on Sundays. The best plan is to travel to Sunderland Interchange by Metro and then catch a Lime 8 bus (every 30 minutes) from the adjoining bus station (stand K). The bus takes around 12 minutes and stops on the main road near the reserve, leaving a short walk down to the centre.
There are two main sections to the reserve – the Close Encounters area, which is great for families, and the ‘wild’ area covering the Wader Lake, the reservoir, reedbeds and the lagoons.
MUST SEE… Serious bird watchers should head straight for the wild zone which also boasts woodlands, meadows, ponds and lakes.
Don’t forget to take your binoculars and a camera, preferably one with a zoom lens.
Lying on the banks of the River Wear, the reserve is blessed with a variety of habitats from riverside and wetlands to woodlands and meadows – a recipe for great wildlife.
On the edges of the reserve there are some quiet woods and meadows where there’s a good chance you’ll see spring and summer migrants including Whitethroat, Willow Warbler, Chiffchaff and Blackcap.
Swallows, House Martins and Sand Martins are also regularly heard and seen whilst Reed and Sedge Warblers can be spotted in the reedbeds.
The woodlands can also be productive so keep your eyes peeled but I’ve rarely had much luck seeing anything interesting in this area of the reserve.
I’ve had more joy in the small woodland near the reservoir on the other side of the reserve where a hide overlooks bird feeders.
Greater-spotted Woodpecker, Nuthatch, Bullfinch, Goldfinches, Tits and a Sparrowhawk are common visitors throughout the year.
MUST SEE… The new otter enclosure has otter feedings at 11:30 and 15:00 daily together with otter talks. For me this is an unmissable treat so don’t forget to time your visit to see these amazing mammals at close quarters.
Also look out for walks with the warden – check the website for details of times and talks.
The reserve has a small restaurant and shop in the visitor centre plus an outdoor viewing platform where there are good views across the reserve from the cafe.
Look out for cranes in this area of the reserve with their long, gangly bodies, brilliant crowns and huge, fluffy wings. Whatever you do, don’t attempt to feed these large birds!
If you’re taking children, don’t forget to buy a bag of seed at the shop to feed the ducks and geese in the Close Encounters section of the reserve.
For an overview of birds on the reserve visit Tammy’s photo gallery below.
If you’re looking to combine your trip to Washington Wetlands with another tourist attraction on the same day, there are a number of options including Penshaw Monument (below), Washington Old Hall and the National Glass Centre in nearby Sunderland.