Saturday, 20 February 2016

Martin Mere WWT

Conscious that spring is - at least in theory - just around the corner and that our winter visiting migrant birds will soon be returning to their summer breeding quarters, I braced myself for the chore/car park that is my local stretch of the M6 and headed up to Martin Mere wetlands reserve on Monday. This has become something of an annual pilgrimage for me to visit and see the spectacular numbers of wildfowl that spend their winters there.

The reserve is famed for these winter populations of wildfowl with total numbers of wild birds at the reserve in winter estimated at over 15000 individuals. Striking Whooper Swans return here in good numbers from Iceland each year (over 1600 individuals this winter). These large swans are easily distinguished from similar sized Mute swans by the yellow of their bills, and the large triangular yellow patch on each side of the bill distinguishes them from the smaller and much less frequently seen Bewick's swan.

Whooper Swans
Whooper Swan resting
Whooper Swan portrait
One of many singing Robins
The reserve also has a selection of captive birds and I wandered through a few of their enclosures before heading over to the hides to see the wild birds which were the real reason for my visit. I admit to having mixed feeling on seeing captive birds with their pinioned wings, but at the same time it is a privilege to see these birds, many of which I am unlikely to ever see in the wild, and the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust of which Martin Mere is a part, do do great conservation work for wetland habitats and their inhabitants. They are involved with and have had great successes in a number of internationally important breeding programmes of endangered birds. 

Of course the areas designated to captive birds are also great for wild birds too - in every area, native Moorhens, Mallards, Shelducks, as well as Black-headed gulls and pigeons, even an ambitiously early nesting Coot mingled with birds from all corners of the globe. Every few metres the trees seemed to have their own resident singing Robin.   

The start of the nesting season - a Coot

View from 'discovery' hide - Whoopers, Wigeon, Shelduck, Coot et al
Male Pintail
From the old 'swan link' hide and the 'discovery' hide there are great views across the largest mere at the site. From these I watched and attempted to photograph some of the ducks present such as Teal, Wigeon, Shelduck, Pochard and Pintail as well as the more familiar Mallard. The mere is also home to several species of wader such as Lapwing, Avocet, Godwit and Ruff, the distinctive cries of Oystercatchers in flight gave away their presence though they landed a little far away to photograph.  

Of the ducks, Pochard in particular I have never managed to see close enough previously to photograph although they do appear in small numbers locally in winter, (usually in single sex bachelor groups at a local country park), so I concentrated on the pair I could find and tried to catch a handful of photos between their frequent dives. (With the sheer volume of birds, one of the biggest challenges with photography here can be to get images without cropped bits of other birds in the frame!) A Cormorant made a brief swim-past between dives but was unfortunately just a little far away to really capture the beautiful turquoise colour of his/her eyes.

Male Teal

Male Pochard

A Lapwing feeding in the sandy mud gave me unusually close views of this beautiful bird - mostly I see them as part of larger flocks generally at some distance, but this one had struck out alone and was feeding close to the hide - the sun really brought out the beautiful colours in the wing feathers. When you see their large winter flocks of hundreds of individuals it would be easy to assume that they are doing just fine as a species, but as with so many other farmland birds, changes to and intensification of agricultural practices have led to significant population declines as they have found it increasingly difficult to rear their young. Numbers have declined by a shocking 80% in England and Wales since 1960, so they are then not surprisingly considered a 'red-listed' species of conservation concern.


Lapwing (same individual as above)

Looking a little lost amongst the considerably larger and more boisterous Greylag geese and Whooper swans was a lone Ross' goose. These pretty geese are usually found in North America often in the company of the Snow geese which they closely resemble except for being a little smaller with stubbier bills. They also develop bluish warty bumps (caruncles) at the base of their bill (particularly the males - with more wartiness meaning more desirable!). They spend their summers in northern Canada, then migrate in a southwesterly direction towards southern states of the US and northern Mexico. A birder might describe this bird to be of 'unknown origin' - s/he doesn't have the leg rings that you might typically expect to see on an 'owned' bird, however it is still much more likely that this goose has escaped from a more local wildfowl 'collection' rather than flown quite so far off its usual course.

Ross' goose
Nearing the end of the day I ventured out of main area of the reserve to have a look at the 'Reedbed walk' - a less trodden path from where with luck it is possible to see hunting owls and raptors. An interesting find along the way was a tiny skull - 3.5 cms in length, slightly broken unfortunately along the sutures (fibrous joints) of the skull bones. Clearly mammalian and with the 'wrong' line up of teeth for a rodent, by a process of elimination (I'd initially wondered about weasel and bat amongst the possible options) I eventually concluded that this is the skull of a mole (though as ever, if I've got it wrong please correct me). What amazing little sharp teeth they have!

Mole skull

Continuing along the path I was helpfully (?) informed that I'd just missed a Marsh Harrier, and that the owls appeared to be taking a break, so I instead focused on just enjoying the walk and the peace and quiet in the gradually setting sun.



  1. I thought I might go to MM this weekend, but the weather seemed to be so appalling it ended up being the garden centre! You seemed to have, amazingly, had some sun though and you got some lovely pix.

    1. Thanks Phil - I was quite lucky, it's very seldom a day off work and decent weather coincide!!! With it being half term it was pretty busy, though the hides were fine. I'd left it a bit late really to get up there (the M6 traffic didn't help), so ended up rushing a little to squeeze in some of the reedbed walk, but it was interesting to see that part of the site - looks like it ought to be good for warblers in summer?

    2. I think I might have mentioned - the Reedbed walk is my favourite part of MM - yes, great for Reed, Sedge, Grasshopper Warbler - Cettis a few times as well

    3. I'll have to make time for another visit in spring/summer to see them (and of course the ducklings - I'm a sucker for ducklings!). :)