Fenland was once one of the great wetlands of Europe; it would have been teeming with wildlife and an amazing place to go birdwatching. Ironically the man-made systems created to drain the original fen – the Ouse and Nene Washes – are now some of the most wildlife-rich areas in the region. Some fragments of the original fen still exist, and there are also a number of exciting habitat creation projects which are replacing a little of the wetland habitat that was lost. Fenland is still a great place to go birdwatching at any time of year and in fact can offer some of the finest wildlife spectacles in the country. The flooded wetlands of the Ouse and Nene Washes provide habitat for huge flocks of wintering wildfowl, ducks and swans in the winter, and dragonflies in the summer. At the Ouse Washes the bird watching hides are open all year, but the visitor centre is open 9am-5pm everyday. Another great place to see thousands of these wintering ducks is the Wildfowl and Wetland Trust (WWT) reserve on the northern end of the Ouse Washes near Welney. Visitors can escape the cold winds in one of the many hides offering great views across the washes, where they’re sure to see Wigeon, Teal, Mallard, Shoveler, Pochard and Tufted Duck in big numbers. This large gathering of birds also attracts predators: Peregrine, Hen Harrier and Merlin are all regulars in the winter months. Barn Owls are a daily occurrence, with Short-eared Owls present too in some years. WWT Welney Wetland Centre’s most famous visitors at this time of year, though, are the swans: thousands of Whooper and Bewick’s Swans spend the winter on and around the reserve. Birders and families can sit comfortably in the heated observatory to learn about the amazing journeys these swans undertake, before watching them being fed. Larger numbers of birds fly in to roost in front of the observatory as evening approaches; it’s a spectacular sight as the swans land on the floodlit lagoon. This can provide visitors with one of the most memorable wildlife experiences in the country. When spring arrives the ducks and swans are replaced by wading birds. The Washes, drained of their water, are now transformed into one of the largest areas of lowland wet grassland in the Britain. The air rings with the sounds of calling and displaying Lapwing, Snipe, Redshank, Avocet and Little Ringed Plover. Welney Wetland Centre also attracts passage waders at this time of year with sightings of species such as Temmincks stint and Wood Sandpipers possible. On the Nene Washes the rare Corncrake has been successfully introduced, their strange grating call can often be heard, but you’ll be very lucky to spot one. This is also the Black-tailed Godwit’s British breeding stronghold; these colourful waders are much more obliging and can easily be spotted as they display noisily. A warm spring evening is the best time to hear the Nightingale; this most famous songster has declined elsewhere but can still be heard in Fenland. Autumn sees waders passing back through wetland sites. The shallow muddy lagoons at Welney Wetland Centre are a good bet with birds such as Little Stint and Curlew Sandpiper recorded every year. This site has a great track record of attracting rarities too: birds like Squacco Heron, Black-winged Stilt, Spoonbill and Glossy Ibis have turned up in recent years. As winter approaches, a trip to one of the area’s newly-created reserves, like RSPB Fen Drayton, would be a good idea. These deep gravel pits are the place to spot the striking male Smew, as well as Goldeneye and many other ducks. The hedge around the lakes should also be full of winter thrushes, tits and finches. There is always something to see and you can catch up with the latest sightings or find details of Winter Wild Swan Feeds at www.wwt.org.uk/welney. WWT Welney Wetland Centre is the destination for the best wild swan encounters in the East of England. Throughout the winter you can watch hundreds of wild swans and ducks being fed whilst listening to a live commentary. The birds jostle for the food and are fascinating to watch from the comfort of the heated hide. Daily 3.30pm feeds start on the October half term and run through to the second week of March. They are made even more special by the fact that shortly after the feed at dusk, more Whooper and Bewick’s swans fly in to roost. For a totally different experience, the floodlit wild swan feeds after dark provide a chance to see the swans being fed their supper before settling down to roost for the evening. These feeds run from 1 November every Thursday-Sunday from 6.30pm. From Boxing Day there is an additional daily wild swan and duck feed at 12noon that gives the Pochard ducks and some of the swans a bit of extra food during the coldest spell of winter.

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