Four trips to plan for January
Fancy a wildlife break to start your new year? Here's a selection to suit every pocket says William Gray.
Day trip | UK
Take an urban safari to London Wetland Centre
Two bitterns, a peregrine, 12 snipe, a kingfisher, 100-plus teal, 234 tufted duck, 46 lapwing and a bearded tit… You might think that such an impressive list of bird sightings from a single day last January could only have come from some remote watery wilderness – a sprawling reserve on the Norfolk coast perhaps. But the London Wetland Centre flexes its muscles against the urban crush of England’s capital with a wealth of wetland habitats that’s irresistible to birds. Winter is one of the best times to visit this wonderfully boggy bit of Barnes. It’s when some of the biggest concentrations of ducks can be seen. Gadwall, pochard, pintail, shoveler, teal and tufted ducks speckle the main lake and sheltered lagoons, while wigeon can usually be found on the grazing marsh. The over-wintering numbers of gadwall and shoveler ducks are nationally significant and one of the reasons why this 40-hectare former Victorian reservoir complex is now a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). You’ll need more time and patience to spot camouflaged waders like snipe and water rail. The latter can sometimes be glimpsed dashing for cover, uttering a cry that’s said to resemble a piglet squealing. Stake out the reedbeds from one of the wetland centre’s excellent hides for a chance to see a bittern. Up to seven have been overwintering on the reserve in recent years, but their cryptic plumage can render them almost invisible as they stand motionless amongst the reeds. Keep focused and watch for movement – with luck that patch of reeds you’ve been staring at might suddenly transform into one of these secretive, skulking herons. The London Wetland Centre also attracts winter flocks of redwings, fieldfares, pipits and finches, fussing through the wooded fringes in search of seeds and berries.
AT A GLANCE
COST RATING: * (Free to members of the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust)
WHEN TO GO: Year round
OTHER WILDLIFE: Moorhen, coot, Jack snipe, woodcock
BOOK NOW: London Wetland Centre (www.wwt.org.uk/wetland-centres/london)
Long weekend | UK
Take a gander at the geese on Loch Gruinart, Islay, Scottish Hebrides
Each autumn, horseshoe-shaped Islay – reached by a 2½-hour ferry trip from Kennacraig on the Scottish mainland – hosts a remarkable avian gathering as up to 40,000 barnacle geese and 5,000 white-fronted geese arrive for the winter. Having flown over 3,000km from breeding sites in Greenland, the wet grasslands of the RSPB’s Loch Gruinart reserve in the northwest of the island make an ideal feeding ground. Two hides provide views over flooded fields where traditional farming has benefitted cattle and wildlife for centuries. Waders such as bar-tailed godwit, golden plover, lapwing and redshank are also drawn to the lush meadows – but it’s the geese that make the headlines here in winter. Dapper in their piebald plumage, dense packs of ‘barnies’ pepper the skies above Islay, their yappy cries and thudding wingbeats reverberating across the island’s wild landscape of saltmarsh, moorland and sea loch. Early morning and late afternoon are often the best times to witness ‘wall-to-wall feathers’. Inevitably, such a dense concentration of geese doesn’t go unnoticed by Islay’s formidable predators. If you happen to be there when an entire superflock of grazing geese suddenly takes flight, chances are they’ve been spooked by a golden eagle. The raptors are more usually seen soaring above the sea cliffs and moorland of The Oa – an RSPB reserve at the rugged southern tip of Islay. Other birds of prey to look out for include buzzard, hen harrier, kestrel, merlin, peregrine and sparrowhawk. If you’re extremely lucky, you might also glimpse the distinctive short-tailed, broad-winged silhouette of a soaring white-tailed eagle. Red-throated divers find shelter on Islay’s sea lochs, while choughs can often be seen flirting with updraughts along the sea cliffs or probing fields for invertebrates with their curved, red bills.
AT A GLANCE
COST RATING: * (entry to reserve is free)
WHEN TO GO: Late October to early April
OTHER WILDLIFE: Roe deer, oystercatcher, snow bunting
BOOK NOW: RSPB (www.rspb.org.uk)
Mini break | Europe
Winter birds & wild cats in Coto Doñana National Park, Spain
While it can be a fairly quiet time of year for wildlife watching in much of Europe, Coto Doñana National Park in Andalucía is a rewarding place to visit during January. Most birdwatchers time their visits to the world heritage site wetland to coincide with the spring migration, or to witness the reserve’s prolific breeding season – but mid-winter is far from dull. Not only do several hundred thousand waders and waterfowl (including 60,000 greylag geese) overwinter on the Coto Doñana’s lagoons and marshes each year, but they join a star-studded cast of resident birds. Common crane, glossy ibis, great white heron and greater flamingo strut their stuff amongst azure-winged magpie, crested short-toed lark, penduline tit and pin-tailed sandgrouse. But it’s birds of prey that often steal the show on a winter’s day birding in Doñana. It’s not unusual to count dozens of marsh harriers on a single outing. Black shouldered kite, hen harrier, griffon vulture, peregrine and red kite are also possible – although eagles top most people’s wishlist. Hunkered down in a lakeside tree or performing their swooping territorial display flights against a crisp winter’s sky, the Spanish imperial eagle makes an impressive sight. There’s more to Doñana, however, than birds. A 2010 census revealed a population of 265 Iberian lynx – a third in the reserve’s scrublands and the rest in Sierra Morena to the northeast, where Sierra de Andujar National Park is one of the best places to search for this elusive, critically endangered feline. To boost your chances of a sighting, try to spend as much time waiting quietly at viewpoints in the scrub-covered mountains. Lynx tend to lie low during the middle part of the day, stirring in the late afternoon to hunt rabbits, birds and young deer.
AT A GLANCE
COST RATING: **
WHEN TO GO: Year round
OTHER WILDLIFE: Purple gallinule, white stork, Bonelli’s, booted and spotted eagles
BOOK NOW: Sunbird Tours (www.sunbirdtours.co.uk)
Long haul | Tanzania
Calving grounds of the Great Migration in the Serengeti National Park
The Great Migration is an endless search for food. Around 1.5 million wildebeest, 500,000 Thomson’s gazelle, and 200,000 plains zebra move to where the grass is greenest – and that depends on where the rains have fallen. It’s the weather that controls the herds, spinning them in a giant clockwise gyre through the Serengeti-Mara ecosystem of Kenya and Tanzania. By January, the migration settles in the short-grass plains of the southern Serengeti, near Lake Ndutu. Rains usually fall here in November and December (sometimes as early as October), luring herds from the central Serengeti in search of new pasture. Nourished by phosphorous-rich volcanic soils, the grasslands offer nutritious grazing. Most calving usually takes place towards the end of January, with up to 500,000 wildebeest born on the southern plains during a two- to three-week window. Heading out on an early morning game drive from one of the camps in the area, it shouldn’t take long to encounter the herds, scattered far and wide across the savannah. The young fawn-coloured wildebeest can stand and run within minutes of being born. They have to. Several lion prides hold territories in the choice hunting grounds of the Ndutu plains. Cheetah and hyena also take advantage of the glut of prey during late January, but more than enough wildebeest survive to fuel the perpetual epic of the Great Migration. Around late March to early April, when the grazing grows thin on the southern plains, the herds stream west in long columns towards the western Serengeti, before heading north towards the Masai Mara. Seasonal mobile safari camps near the calving grounds of the southern Serengeti including Olakira Camp (olakira.asiliaafrica.com), Serengeti Safari Camp (www.nomad-tanzania.com/north/serengeti-safari-camp) and Serengeti Under Canvas (www.andbeyond.com/serengeti-under-canvas), while permanent accommodation is available at Ndutu Safari Lodge (www.ndutu.com).
AT A GLANCE
COST RATING: ***/****
WHEN TO GO: Late December to early April
OTHER WILDLIFE: Eland, elephant, jackal, white-backed vulture
BOOK NOW: Expert Africa (www.expertafrica.com)