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I'm Chris Packham and this is Hands On Nature -
your guide to the very best wildlife spots in the UK,
and today it's mud, mud, glorious mud, as we get to grips with the best of Britain's estuaries.
I'm on a boat cruise spotting some beautiful birds, including one with a strange twitchy leg.
Mike Dilger heads to the Wash, where you're guaranteed one of our great mammal spectacles.
The seals are all around us.
Just the best time of year.
And Janet Sumner discovers the beauty of the Humber Estuary.
This is just the most amazing view.
Yes, estuaries - where our rivers meet the sea, like here on the Exe estuary in Devon.
They are brilliant places for wildlife - there's a great range of habitats.
Everything from shallow water to deep water, to salt marsh,
and perhaps most importantly, lots of this - super mud.
Now, the Exe may be one of our smaller estuaries, but it supports a wealth of habitats.
As such, it deservedly has special environmental protection.
In late autumn, winter and early spring, this estuary is teeming with birds.
Thousands of them come from northern Europe to join our resident species
and take advantage of its rich pickings.
There's probably no better way to get a view of them than to come on this boat.
One of our first sightings is a really striking bird, the avocet.
Avocets are always popular, they are a very elegant bird.
In the past they were a great rarity in Britain.
They had been persecuted for the hat trade, millinery.
They have come back and now breed in East Anglia but great numbers of continental birds come to the Exe
and you get super views of them.
The avocet's most distinctive feature is its upwardly curved beak,
which it uses to good effect to find food.
When you watch avocets feeding,
what they are doing is scooping that very fine, up-turned bill through the mud.
They use that to detect any small crustaceans or shellfish that they can find in there.
This is the curlew, our largest wader.
It has an easily recognisable down-turned beak, allowing it to probe deep into the mud.
Tony White, head of RSPB, thanks for the invite for the cruise, it's been fantastic.
-What is so special about the Exe?
-The birds, absolutely fantastic.
In the middle of winter here you're looking at 25,000 individual birds here using this estuary.
And the views you get of these birds are exceptional.
It's a fantastic resource here as well, a huge amount of mud.
A lot of people look at mud and think it's wasteland but it isn't.
If you look closely in that mud, you've got a massive amount of life.
If you calculate the calorific value of the mud, you're not going to eat this if you're on a diet.
It is packed with energy, and that's why these birds are here.
Normally, we conservationists like to prattle on about declines,
but here it is the reverse, thank goodness.
Yes, a lot of these birds are doing extremely well.
Take the avocet, it is increasing in numbers
in terms of breeding and wintering down here, you are seeing more and more.
These are birds that are doing great, and it is excellent to be able to talk about birds that are doing well.
Finally, a Brent goose fly-past.
These birds have come from northern Siberia to feed on the grassy fields alongside the estuary.
What they do to stop overgrazing that area, they will feed in a spot,
fly away and go back precisely four days later.
Precisely four days later, because in most situations it takes that long for the grass
to regenerate and produce the maximum amount of nitrogen, and that is what the geese are after.
The geese have got it sorted down here.
The reason that all of those birds are here, the reason I am here,
and the reason I hope you are going to come here
is this great expanse of mud, which looks so bleak and barren but is in fact far from it,
as James Chubb, East Devon's Education Officer is going to tell us.
It's certainly not. The whole place is teeming with life, but you've got to get right down to appreciated it.
There are cockleshells everywhere.
There are so many tiny animals because the place is full of microscopic algae and bacteria.
That is what the smallest of the animals feed on.
In the mud is another creature, a large delicacy loved by the birds.
Here, we've got a lugworm cast, and that's where the lugworm has pushed out clean sand
that it's filtered all the algae from,
and this entrance hole is where the lugworm has been sucking water in.
If you imagine underneath the sand here there's a big U-shaped curve
going in about seven inches below the surface.
So, it's in with the spade, and hopefully a lugworm will be lurking in the rich mud and algae.
-There we go.
-Look at that!
-It's almost as if we put it there, but we couldn't have done.
-No, that's come out of the Exe mud.
You've got the head end here, that sucks in water full of dirty sand.
The sand gets filtered through the stomach, and all the algae gets absorbed and digested from the sand.
Then clean sand gets pushed out of the rear end.
Right, after a hard day on the mud flats hunting for worms, this is where a lot of the birds
come to roost at high tide.
You've got to check the tide timetables if you're coming to a place like this.
Bowling Green Marsh is in a narrow part of the estuary further upstream.
There are waders, plus a whole host of wild fowl.
Widgeon grazing on the grass. There's a couple of shovelers.
See the drake - very distinctly marked with that shovel-shaped bill,
which it uses for sifting through the water.
That's a pintail up-ending there.
Look at that. Lovely pointed tail.
There's a couple of teal there.
Under-rated the wildfowl, I think - quite a few of our species are really exotic birds.
Now, if you want exotic, this is the lapwing with its distinctive call.
And striking good looks, topped off with a wacky head crest.
It also has a great technique for finding food.
It twitches its leg!
It's using the vibration to disturb the invertebrates in the soil.
When you're this close to birds, it is often tempting to try to get a good photograph of them.
If you've got a 35mm kit like this, with a big telephoto lens, this is an ideal opportunity.
Try and keep that lens as steady as possible
by resting on your coat, especially when you're in a hide.
And choose a high-speed film as well - the higher the shutter speed the better,
because many of these species are always moving rapidly, and you'll need that to stop it from blurring.
And talking of speed...
..the arrival of a peregrine falcon panics a group of widgeon.
It powers into them,
but there's no meal this time and the ducks regroup and return to land.
I can't think of any other hides in the country that I have visited recently
and got views as close as this of these sorts of birds.
The hide is at Bowling Green Marsh
outside Topsham near Exeter.
It's open all year and it's free.
For more details
check out our website...
You're watching Hands On Nature, your very own personal guide
on how to get very close to the best of British wildlife.
In a moment, Janet Sumner sees what's flying in on the Humber Estuary.
What have we got?
It's a linnet, Janet, an adult male.
Do remember to take my advice of checking the tide times,
especially if you want to get the best views of the birds.
If the tide is out, they will all be out feeding.
If it's coming in, all the birds will be moving.
And if the tide is in, they will all be roosting.
One of the best ways you can check those tide times is to go to the BBC weather site -
something that Mike Dilger made sure he did
before he headed off to one of the best estuaries on the east coast.
The Wash - a vast estuary that stretches for over 100 square-miles.
And to fully appreciate it you need to take to the water, so I've come to Hunstanton
on the Norfolk side, where finding a boat is a bit of a challenge.
If you want to get on a boat, you need a jetty, but one slight problem,
it's too shallow at Hunstanton. So if you want to see wildlife on the Wash, the boatmen have to be inventive.
The skipper of this bizarre-looking vessel is William Searls.
It's a boat that goes to sea, called an amphibian.
I've never been in anything like it, where did you get it from?
We acquired it after a long search,
and we believe it was used in Vietnam to carry troops and tanks.
From the Mekong Delta to the Wash, and a sandbank known simply as Seal Island.
This is what we came for.
The common seals coming out to bask in the sun on the sandbanks.
And "common" is not a very good name for them
because there's two species of seal in Britain, the grey and the common.
The rarest is the common!
So really, maybe it should be called the uncommon seal!
The colony is here all year round, but the best time to visit is June or July
when the common seals have just had their pups.
I keep hearing calls, what are those?
That's the pup calling to the mother cos the mother's just come off the bank to start feeding,
and he's got separated, but they will catch up again.
It looks sometimes as if they're having a surf ride with the mother - is that right?
Yes, they ride on the mother's necks, that's the newborn ones.
-Then they separate a little bit.
-Become more independent as time goes on.
I've been given a fantastic opportunity to nip onto the sand bank.
The water's rising - we're almost going to get cut off if we are not careful!
But the seals are all around us.
It's just the best time of year.
We've got adult bull males, mothers, really young pups.
It's just terrific.
Minutes later, and it's all gone.
The tide has reclaimed Seal Island.
Two months on, in late summer, I headed to the other side of the estuary
in Lincolnshire to see what tasty morsels are hidden in its depths.
But to fully appreciate what's under the water, we're going to need one of these and an army of these.
Come on kids, let's go sea dipping!
-Are you ready to go kids?
Excellent! Most important thing, you've all got your shoes on? Because we've got weaver fish here
so we have to be careful of our feet. And you've got your nets?
'Some of the nets that Education Officer Kim Hudson has given us
'are made out of ladies' tights and plastic bottles!'
Are you ready to go? Let's go!
'Apparently, they are the ideal tool for sea dipping.
'And Gibraltar Point near Skegness is the perfect place to have a go.'
To the uninitiated, Kim, it looks mucky, dirty and polluted, but it's not, is it?
No, everyone always presumes that, but it's got a lot of mud in it because we've got muddy shores,
sandy shores, the rivers opening up into the Wash.
Let's have a look at what you've got.
'Surely everyone knows the starfish, but few are familiar with its bizarre table manners.
'The way it engulfs and swallows its food.'
Do you know how these eat? It's amazing.
Their stomach is right in the middle, and they can eject the whole of their stomach outside
and completely swallow it back down again.
Kim, it's worth bearing in mind you've got to be really safe around the shore edge, it can be dangerous.
I would say little ones need to be up to their knees - they shouldn't go any deeper.
Always have an adult around. Make sure there is someone onshore watching them.
Stuart, the lad with the big net, has found these two cracking little crabs.
And this one particularly, is a female.
If you look under her abdomen, there's a massive egg case.
And of course, when you're holding crabs, make sure you hold them either side of the shell -
that way, you don't get nipped by the pincers!
Kim, we've done rather well.
-Yes, brilliant catching.
-What's your highlight, do you think?
I always love the pipefish.
'This is a relative of the seahorse.
'You can see the resemblance from its pointed snout.
'And just like the seahorse, when the pipefish has young, the female takes a back seat.'
The man does all the work. The female will lay the eggs,
the male will have them in his pouch and brood those, and then they'll hatch out.
Thank you very much, kids, for finding such brilliant creatures.
But there's much more than sea dipping and seals, and to find one of the great Norfolk spectacles,
I'm going to have to get up tomorrow morning at dawn.
It's a beautiful morning at the RSPB reserves in Snettisham.
It's not the early start that's critical. We've come here for one of the highest tides of the year
because the high tide brings the spectacle we're after.
It's a gathering of the feathered clans.
Wave after wave of birds are constantly on the move,
as the tide rises, covering their feeding areas.
The reason why the Wash is so wonderful for waders is down to this -
mile after mile of mud.
But when the high tide comes in, their breakfast, dinner and tea are completely covered,
so they have to go to roost in the pits behind, and with luck, they should fly straight over my head.
Some of the birds have already settled in the old gravel pits, which are a perfect refuge.
Out on the mud, there's a whole variety of waders,
but the final guests at this party are about to make a spectacular entrance.
One of the first migrants to return from their breeding grounds in the High Arctic.
It's still effectively high summer, and the birds have just arrived,
so a lot of them are still in full summer plumage,
which is this lovely terracotta, brick-red colour, right over their bellies.
These birds have just flown a huge distance from Greenland and north-east Canada.
The sea is just lapping against the edge of the flock.
On the edge, they're getting their feet wet and are flying over to the other side.
They're just not ready to go yet,
but I think it's going to be a question of any second now.
The oystercatcher and the knot are in one enormous flock.
The oystercatchers are the first to make a dash for the gravel pits.
And as the last bits of exposed mud disappear, it's the turn of the knot.
The tide's just about in...
And look around me...
There are knot everywhere in a massive flock!
Look, right over my head.
All I can hear is the sound of the lapping waves covering the mud
and the sound of thousands of knot flying over my head to the pits behind.
To see that bird spectacle,
visit the RSPB Snettisham reserve
Late summer and autumn are best.
You can find more information
on our website...
Another one of our largest estuaries is in the North of England, at the mouth of the River Humber.
Just 25 miles downstream from Hull is a naturalist paradise.
Janet Sumner has been to Spurn Point.
Spurn is a fragile and unique environment.
It's connected to the mainland by a three and a half mile thin strip of sand and shingle.
What makes it so different is it's a landscape on the move.
Spurn Point is really a bit of an oddity.
This side gets pounded by the North Sea every day and it's got a real coastal feel.
But on the other side, you've got the River Humber and one of the largest estuaries in Britain.
It's like two different worlds existing side-by-side.
This stretch of coastline is eroding away,
and you'll find a lot of the debris has been washed down the coast to Spurn.
Forage on the beach and you'll find all sorts of rocks from further north
that have been pushed south by time and tide.
One of the best ways of understanding what's happening on the ground is to get a bit of height.
This is just the most amazing view!
From up here, you can see the big curved shape of Spurn Point.
There have been at least five Spurns.
The others have all been washed away, but every time, a new one grows in its place.
Spurn's real claim to fame is its bird life.
Thousands of migrants pass through here.
Bird watcher Mike Coverdale is qualified to monitor their movements by trapping.
Mike, so these are the mist nets, aren't they?
-Just incredibly fine.
They are made of very fine material, so the birds can't see them.
So when they are flying along, they fly into the net.
Then the people that are ringing birds look at the nets regularly,
take the bird out, ring it, let the bird go and it is totally unharmed.
-What have you got?
-It's a linnet, an adult male.
Beautiful red on it.
Is it here on Spurn to breed, or just passing through?
This bird is here to breed. It will have arrived here in April
from southern Europe, spend summer here, raising at least two broods of young.
It will change these feathers, the bright feathers will wear during the year.
Once it's done that, it will migrate south
to southern Europe with the rest of the linnets and lots of other birds.
The birds aren't the only reason to come here. I've enlisted Pete Bowler to show me why.
Peter, we are on the hunt for Spurn's most beautiful reptile.
I've got an unusual piece of kit here that you made me bring along.
-What am I going to do with it?
-We are going to see if we can attract common lizards
to come out and sunbathe, warm up their bodies on this piece of wood with kitchen foil wrapped around it.
It helps the lizards to warm up.
We'll leave that for a couple of hours and come back and see if we've got any luck.
Maybe we'll be lucky.
'While the lizard trap was warming up, it was time to do a bit of newt hunting on the salt marsh.'
You just have to be patient and persistent.
-Have you got one?
We nearly didn't see that.
Down in the corner, curled up, playing dead.
So that's the female smooth newt, isn't it?
-Oh, she's off!
Spectacular, lovely golden-brown colour.
Nice dark stripes on the edges of the back.
A cute little face.
They've got really endearing faces.
Let's put it back down where we found it, tucked in that corner.
-Where we found it.
-That would be great.
'We return the smooth newt to her home, and it's back to our sun trap
'which has been hotting up, but sadly has not enticed a lizard.'
We've had no luck with the suntrap, but there's definitely lizards on that wall.
It's a great site for lizards to occupy because it's a south-facing wall - catches all the sun.
The stones reflect the heat to help them warm up, lots of insects.
Look! There's one there at the bottom of the wall.
-Just coming out of the grass.
-Yep, I see him.
He's got lovely little spots along his back. Is that a male or female?
It's difficult to tell from here. If you're not sure whether it's male or female,
if you've got a camera, take a photo of it and check on the internet or in a book.
Whatever you do, don't try and catch it
because lizards can shed their tails as part of their escape mechanism.
If the tail breaks off, they waste energy re-growing it and they become more vulnerable.
Oh! It's gone! Just dropped down into the grass. That was brilliant!
-I'm glad we've seen one.
Spurn is one of those places that has wildlife oddities.
Sometimes you can get almost biblical plagues of creatures here.
Recently, there have been massive numbers of garden tiger moth caterpillars.
But this year, there's lots and lots of lackey moths.
The striped colours of these lackey moths resemble the livery worn by servants or lackies,
hence their name. And you can often find them in these communal nests.
It's like a caterpillar nursery.
Crucial to the survival of this landscape are its plants, and Denise Coverdale is going to show me why.
This stuff - I recognise that, that's really common plants for sand dunes, isn't it, these grasses?
Yes, they are. It's all marram grass and lime grass.
Lime grass in particular is a stunning grass.
These plants, these are actually holding Spurn Point together.
-They bind the sand dunes together.
-Yes, they are. They come in quickly.
One example being that this winter we lost a lot of sand dune area
at the top of Spurn here. A lot more sand was brought in,
and within months all these have come back through again.
Very much so.
-This has got really pretty flowers, and the bees are going mad for it!
-Yes, they are.
It has a lovely smell. When you get close to it, a lovely scent.
-What is it?
Very fleshy leaves.
It does look a bit like rocket, the rocket you get in your salad.
And it has got incredibly waxy leaves.
Is that typical for plants on the sand or on the dunes?
It is the plant's way of retaining as much water as it can.
That's quite good advice, not just to look things up in your flower book or take photographs,
but to get down and start feeling the plants and smelling them, because these do feel quite different.
As you leave the beachy side of Spurn Point, the plant life changes again.
This is one of the best salt marsh habitats in the whole of the British Isles.
What is this strange little plant that you've brought me here to see?
It is rather strange. It has two names. One is glasswort, the other one is marsh sunfire.
Marsh sunfire - people recognise it as being something... People cut it and pickle it and then eat it.
It's edible! What does it taste like?
Oh, it is! It's incredibly salty.
And it's got this waxy, sort of fleshy feel to it again.
Yes, it's like a lot of the other plants, it's trying to keep as much water in as it can
and protect itself from saltwater.
It's amazing that these plants adapt themselves to live in quite horrible,
hostile, environments. It's remarkable.
Spurn is just 25 miles east of Hull.
Stop when you get to the sea.
It's managed by the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust.
Check out our website for more information...
Well, that's all we've got time for, but before we go, look at this.
It's not just the birds that come down here to the Exe Estuary to gather shellfish.
These ladies are here trying to fill their bucket with cockles, like this one, ready for their supper.
I'm told they boil them and then pickle them in vinegar, or they fry them in egg with breadcrumbs.
When we were kids, we used to crack them open alive and knock it back with a swig of whisky!
These days, I'll leave my share for the birds.
Well, that's it for this series of Hands on Nature.
Time to stop watching the telly
and get out there amongst all of this wonderful wildlife.
Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd
Chris Packham presents a guide to the UK's wildlife hotspots. He reveals how to get close to seal pups in East Anglia and the mudlarks and waders of one of Devon's most beautiful estuaries.