Tuesday, 10 February 2015

Winter at Martin Mere

Not quite my local patch at about an hour's drive away, Martin Mere is a wonderful reserve managed by the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust near Ormskirk in Lancashire. I have been there several times over the years and particularly enjoy visiting during the winter months when the reserve is filled with wildfowl that have migrated from cooler Eastern and Northern climates to spend their winters there. 

With sun forecast for the whole day, myself and my husband headed over last weekend. The reserve is home to around 100 different species of captive wildfowl from around the world in large wetland enclosures designed to recreate their natural environments, we spent a couple of hours wandering through these enclosures - it was a pleasure to see beautiful birds that we would be unlikely to see otherwise. The real highlight for me however was visiting the various hides (from where all of the photos of birds in this post were taken), and seeing the thousands of wild birds, many of them migrants that call Martin Mere home over the winter.
Whooper Swans

Amongst the more usual winter visitors to the mere such as the Whooper Swans (visitors from Iceland similar in size to Mute Swans, numbering 1720 at their highest count so far this year), the Greylag and Pinkfoot geese, and ducks such as Pintails, Wigeon, Teal and Mallard, were two unusual individuals - a Ross's goose, and also a Bar-headed goose. These latter two are probably escapes from other waterfowl collections or feral birds, as opposed to being genuine 'vagrants'. 

Bar-Headed Goose
The Bar-Headed goose is naturally resident in Central Asia. These geese make migrations over the Himalayas making them widely considered the world's highest flying birds with a specially adapted physiology to allow them to fly at altitudes where the levels of Oxygen are so low.
This individual is currently mixing with the wild Greylag Geese at Martin Mere - I was lucky to get a good view of him/her just in front of the Swan Link hide - a beautiful and unusual bird to see here

Wigeon (male)

Of the ducks, a lovely bird we saw dozens of on this visit were Wigeon - medium sized ducks that winter in the UK, quite noisy birds with a loud whistling call. There were also plenty of beautiful Pintails with their softer call, similar in sound to a Teal in my opinion, but lower in pitch. Shelducks were ubiquitous, enjoying the spoils in all of the captive birds' enclosures, as well as amongst the other wild birds seen from the hides. 

Pintail (male)
We timed our visit to the Swan Link hide in order to see the 'Swan Spectacular', where grain and sometimes waste potatoes from local farms are put out for these birds by the wheelbarrow load, topping up their food intake and encouraging them to stay at the WWT site rather than feeding too extensively in local fields. Clearly the birds knew exactly when to expect this and could be seen flying in from all directions in time for this 3pm treat. After the noise and jostling of the larger birds had calmed down, smaller waders such as Redshank and Ruff could be seen scuttling along on the sand and mud, Lapwings were also plentiful, but kept their distance from the hides. 
Ruff (according to the RSPB website only about 820 individuals winter in the UK)

Rudely interrupted - a stoat makes a Barn Owl take flight
After this, we went along to the Harrier Hide, and whereas we didn't see any of the Marsh Harriers which are known to hunt over this area of wetland, we were delighted to instead watch a Barn Owl hunting, beautifully backlit by the setting sun (this was from about 40 minutes before sunset). 

Also out hunting, along a grass pathway visible from the hide was a mustelid, the black tip of its tail identifying it as a stoat. We saw the stoat running back towards us carrying something in its mouth but it was too far away to make out exactly what. At one point the Barn Owl spent several minutes sat in the middle of this clearing, the same area where the stoat was patrolling and it ran towards the Barn Owl making the bird take to the air. Stoats can predate the eggs and young of Barn Owls though I'm not sure whether they would attempt to take on an adult - whether the stoat was considering this, or was perhaps uncomfortable with the owl's presence I cannot say. (I've included a photo of this (with apologies for the poor quality), where you can just about see the stoat's head visible, and the owl looking directly down at it.)

Hunting Barn Owl

The visit ended on a rather more sombre note. We went in to the on-site optics store as we were gradually making our way towards the exit, and as well as admiring the various binoculars and scopes for sale we also admired the view over the wetlands with the setting sun. My initial pleasure at seeing a rabbit coming close to the large windows of the shop was soon tempered by the salesman stating that it looked "a bit myxy". And indeed as soon as a lens was trained on the rabbit, we could see that s/he looked very unwell indeed. 

Rabbit with suspected Myxomatosis
Myxomatosis is a viral disease, devastating to rabbit populations, generally spread by biting insects carrying the myxoma virus, and to a lesser extent between rabbits by close contact with infected individuals. It can cause blindness as well as lumps on the head and body, is untreatable and usually fatal. It's a disease which until relatively recently I incorrectly thought was a largely historical issue - the virus was deliberately introduced into rabbit populations in the 1950s, initially in Australia, and then in France from where it spread throughout Europe, including to the UK where the disease's spread was encouraged (for example by putting infected animals into otherwise healthy warrens). In all cases in an unpleasant attempt to control rabbit numbers. Whereas rabbits undoubtedly affect their environments, it was of course humans who introduced rabbits to many countries including the UK, and myxomatosis persists in our wild rabbit populations to this day.



  1. Looks like an amazing day out with plenty of wildlife, fantastic photography Jan. A wonderful read. :) x

    1. Thanks Kez - we had a great day over there, wonderful to see so many waders and waterbirds, and of course amazing to watch the Barn Owl! :)