As you meander along the lanes near Welney, the vast, exposed muddy fields with the pickings of last year’s veggie crops seem endless. Then, you reach a large yet discrete visitor’s centre and observatory overlooking the flooded Ouse Washes. It is here that up to 61,000 wintering wildfowl, including swans, geese and ducks, swap their snow-covered breeding grounds further north and east for a warmer, western resort. The wetland habitat of the Ouse Washes floodplains remain relatively unfrozen and the masses of birds gather every afternoon for an unforgettable feeding frenzy.
East of the reserve centre, Lady Fen and Bank Fen provide ideal flat, open farmland to look for hares; viewable from the Wigeon Café in the visitor centre. Watch out for a female declining the flirty intentions of the males as she comes into season, chasing and boxing them away. Hares’ large hunched bodies, gangly oversized legs and long, black-tipped ears are a giveaway.
Feeding mainly at night on aquatic plants and seeds, the brick-red headed males and soft brown-coloured females are usually snoozing during the day, bobbing around like remote control boats. By late afternoon, they form a tight writhing mass, jostling for prime position in mesmerising flocks waiting for their supper. Compare the number of males with females – they migrate different distances and flocks will often be biased to one gender or the other.
Welney has a heated observatory to provide a cosy haven during biting cold days. It’s a chance to get up close and personal with the wild birds. There are also five other hides across the reserve to gain different perspectives of the fens habitat and its wildlife. Watch the birds squabble for the best position at daily feeding bonanzas at 12pm and 3.30pm. On Thursdays to Sundays the birds are also fed at 6.30pm under floodlight.
Arriving from Arctic Russia, Bewick’s swans are compact, cuter looking versions of whooper swans. Look for the yellow bill colour, which stops short of the nostrils. Thousands make their way south, travelling through northern Europe before hopping across the Channel to escape the cold. Listen for their distinctive trumpet-like calls as they announce their arrival each evening with a complement of head nodding and flashing of pure-white wings.
Also known as sea pheasants, the males have elegant long tails, sky-blue bills and chocolate-brown heads, while both sexes have graceful bodies and slender necks. Watch for displaying males, stretching their heads up and back while showing off their fine, simply streaked backs and ‘pin tails’. Sometimes the males battle it out, chest-to-chest like rutting deer, or simply peck at rivals who venture too close to their partners.
Our largest wintering swan, the whooper migrates from Iceland, making the journey across the sea to Scotland, where many stop while others continue south to Welney. Look for longer necks and angled beaks. The yellow bill colour extends beyond the nostrils. Like the Bewick’s, they gather in family groups, nosily calling like a cacophony of vuvuzelas. The juveniles are soft powder-grey with delicate pink flushes on the bills.
How to get there
The centre is 12 miles north of Ely, 26 miles north of Cambridge and 33 miles east of Peterborough. It is two miles south of Welney village, turning off the A1101 at the New Bedford suspension bridge, signposted Ten Mile Bank. Occasionally, the A1101 between Welney village and suspension bridge is flooded. Check the website before setting off.
Find out more
Hundred Foot Bank, Welney PE14 9TN
The WWT centre and reserve is open daily, up to 27 Feb 2011. Mon-Wed 10am-5pm; Thurs-Sun 10am-8pm. 29 Feb-30 October, 9.30am to 5pm. Check centre for times of swan feeds.
WWT Welney Wetland Centre
Fine selection of hot and cold food.
Lamb and Flag Inn
Main Street, Welney, Wisbach, PE14 9RB
Traditional bed and breakfast welcoming fishermen, wildfowlers and bird watchers all year round.