The Ouse Washes can lay a strong claim to being the county’s premier birding site. Essentially a catchment area for winter floodwaters, it is a very important site for birds.
The RSPB Reserve at Welches Dam offers the comfort of birding from (several) hides but the washes can be viewed along their entire length via footpaths along the banks that mark the eastern and western boundaries.
Flood conditions are variable. In a typical year, the main winter floods come in late November or early December and leave the washes under a deep bank-to-bank flood along their entire length until March. These floodwaters drain off gradually during early spring to provide ideal conditions for wet grassland breeding species and grazing cattle (an essential management tool). During late spring, summer and autumn, specially created permanent pools provide the best areas for birding.
Spring floods occur in some years. This is disastrous for breeding birds that become 'flooded out' but can provide excellent birding conditions during late spring and early summer. In some winters, a bank-to-bank flood does not occur and the mix of flash floods and drier areas provides excellent birding conditions too. It would be fair to say that conditions on the washes are something of a lottery and the quality of birding varies accordingly.
During winter, wildfowl dominate. Star attraction is the flocks of thousands of Bewick’s and Whooper Swans that feed on adjacent arable land by day and roost on the washes. Wild geese appear in small numbers. Tundra Bean Goose is the most sought after species and occurs in small numbers each winter. Pink-footed, White-fronted, Brent and the occasional Barnacle can also be found. Thousands of surface feeding and diving ducks challenge the dedicated to find the rarity amongst them.
Tackling the vast gull roost has its rewards in the form of regular Yellow-legged, Caspian and Mediterranean Gull and occasional Glaucous and Iceland Gulls and Kittiwakes (movements of this mainly pelagic gull can occur during strong winds). Raptors are another attraction. Peregrine and Merlin regularly patrol the area with its abundance of food. A Hen Harrier roost forms on the washes in drier winters and Short-eared owls can be common in winters when a large number have arrived from Scandinavia.
Along the flood edge, Water Pipits are a highly sought after species. They peak in March when passage birds move through in their smart breeding plumage. Tree Sparrows flock around the RSPB visitor centre where Bramblings are another winter attraction.
Spring starts in February on the washes when Icelandic Black-tailed Godwits begin to appear. They usually peak at over 2000 in March and are a spectacular sight once they attain their rich 'tomato soup' colour breeding plumage that overshadows that of nominate 'limosa' birds. Wildfowl numbers decline rapidly, but Garganey begin to appear. Over 20 have been recorded in April and early May in recent years on a single day.
In addition to the Black-tailed Godwits, many other waders pass through. 'Coastal' waders such as Grey Plover, Turnstone, Knot and Bar-tailed Godwits are regular. Ruff attain their stunning breeding plumage and can be seen 'lekking' before heading north to breed. Greenshank, Spotted Redshank, Whimbrel and small numbers of Avocets and Wood Sandpipers are other regular spring waders. Black Terns, Little Gulls and Arctic Terns pass through during April and May. The first two tend to occur when the wind has an easterly element and the latter when it is in the north. Yellow Wagtail passage is strong and both White and Blue-headed can be found amongst the flocks. Hirundine passage can be spectacular as birds pass south-west along the length of the washes in thousands after joining the Ouse Mouth on the Norfolk Coast.
Rare breeding birds include Spotted Crake (a handful of birds can be heard calling from dusk into the night), Black-tailed Godwit, Garganey. Hobby and Marsh Harrier also breed and regularly grace the skies. Water Rails are very common and their bizarre squealing calls are a common night-time sound. Quail appear each summer and Barn Owls can be seen hunting along the banks during the summer evenings.
In autumn, attention focuses on the reserve’s permanent pools and the waders that they attract. Little Stint and Curlew Sandpiper can be found in high numbers following a good lemming year in the Arctic leading to high breeding success. Pectoral Sandpiper has occurred annually in recent years between July and October. Garganey bring their young to the pools and high double figure counts are not uncommon during August and early September.
Recent rarities (in the last 10 years) include Great Northern Diver, Night Heron, Cattle, Little and Great White Egrets, Purple Heron, White Stork, Glossy Ibis, Spoonbill, American Wigeon, Green-Winged Teal, Ferruginous Duck, Lesser Scaup, Rough-legged Buzzard, Corncrake, Common Crane, Pacific Golden Plover, Sociable Plover, Temminck’s Stint, Red-necked Phalarope, Pectoral Sandpiper, Lesser Yellowlegs, Greater Yellowlegs, White-Winged Black Tern, Shorelark, Richard’s Pipit and Red-backed and Great Grey Shrikes.