Welches Dam and 
The Ouse Washes

Welches Dam is one access point for the Ouse Washes, the largest area of washland in the UK.  Despite the name, there has not been a dam here for over 250 years.

The half mile wide area between two artificial rivers (or Fenland drains) is run as a nature reserve by the RSPB and Wildlife Trusts. It extends for 20 miles through Cambridgeshire and into Norfolk, The fen farmland is grazed by cows and sheep in the spring and summer, the meadows bordered by water filled ditches. In winter the land is intentionally flooded, creating the largest inland destination for migrating wildfowl in the UK.  Whooper and Bewick Swans can be found here in nationally important numbers throughout the winter. 

We also tend to head there during the colder months to view the wildlife spectacular.

Our journey to the Ouse Washes

From our trip the previous year I remembered the road was bumpy but had forgotten how much like a roller coaster it was.  In places one side of the vehicle was quite a few feet higher than the other giving the sensation the car was going to tip over.  The road was narrow with no possibility of pulling over to allow a vehicle coming the other way to pass without ending up in the river. I thought the blind bend beside a derelict pub was the scariest moment. That was until we reached the car park and saw the steep muddy entrance. Avoiding this, and going the long way around to enter from the other end, proved  no less difficult as the road was only inches wider than the car! 

Despite the road, this destination was well worth the visit. 

Ouse Washes - home of the Whooper Swan

Visiting the bird hides

The journey negotiated, we made use of the public conveniences, stopped at the Visitor Center to collect a map, then headed up the steps and crossed the bridge over the Old Bedford River on foot. On our last visit we turned right and followed the accessible boardwalk towards the three hides numbered 8, 9 and 10. We decided to go in the opposite direction this time. 

Although there was a path, it was rather wet and muddy due to the recent rains. On our left was the river we had just crossed and on our right was a steep grassy bank. At intervals along the bank are long flights of wooden steps leading up to the hides which overlook the floodplains beyond. 

The steps up to one of the bird hides

We checked out hides 7 to 4, meeting just five other birdwatchers.  Looking out at the water it took a while to "get my eye in" and see the masses of birds out there. This wasn't helped by the fact that the rising sun was almost directly in front of us when in the first hide. 

The peace of the fenland countryside was punctuated with the whistles of Wigeon,  peewit-peewit of Lapwing, the honk of Geese and the wing beats of Whooper Swans as they flew past. 

Turning my head, I could see Ely Cathedral in the distance.

Ely Cathedral in the background

Wigeon and Lapwings were in abundance with Teal, Gadwall, Mallard, Shovellor, Pintail, Goldeneye and Tufted Duck, Black Headed Gulls, Greylag, Canada and Barnacle Geese, Mute and Whooper Swans, in amongst them. There were a number of Corvids around and I also spotted a Grey Heron, Starlings and a Pied Wagtail along the shore line. We were told there were Bewicks Swans in the area, but we didn't see them sadly.

Every so often hoards of birds would take to the air indicating the presence of a bird of prey. We spotted a female Marsh Harrier with her pale head golden in the sunlight, a Peregrine Falcon perched on a fence post and a male Kestrel on the wing. Another gentleman in the hide also tried to point out a Merlin as it zoomed past, but it eluded me.  The Lapwings were easily disturbed by the raptors while the ducks were less concerned. 

Female Marsh Harrier towards top left of photograph harrassing the lapwings
A pair of Gadwall among the Wigeon
Pintail ducks

Making friends

Birdwatchers tend to be a friendly bunch on the whole and we got chatting with a retired couple in the fourth hide. They each had spotting scopes and powerful binoculars but were not photographers. They kindly pointed out birds that they had seen, but due to the power of their optics they could see much more than I could, including Greater Black Backed Gulls, a Ruff and Common Redshanks.  There was also mention of a Brown Hare as we entered the hide but I was unable to pinpoint it. 

Before we left they offered us a look through their scopes. The gentleman also allowed me to use his Swarovski binoculars (affiliate link). WOW! The clarity was superb. They were his retirement present to himself and cost more than £1500, in a sale! Well out of my price range unfortunately but something to dream about for sure. 

I believe our little spotting scope may be in hubby's hands next time we go out. I might even try some digiscoping at some time in the future. This is where a camera body is attached to the scope and photographs are taken using the combination.

Back to the car

All too soon the light began to fade and it was time to head home. Such a shame the winter days are so short. 

I dallied a while in the nice warm Visitor Center to check out the bird feeders and bushes beside them, looking for Tree Sparrows. However, on this occasion I only spotted their cousins the House Sparrows along with a Goldfinch. Perhaps next time, as I am sure we will be back before too long.

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