Estuaries Hands on Nature


Estuaries

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I'm Chris Packham and this is Hands On Nature -

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your guide to the very best wildlife spots in the UK,

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and today it's mud, mud, glorious mud, as we get to grips with the best of Britain's estuaries.

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I'm on a boat cruise spotting some beautiful birds, including one with a strange twitchy leg.

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Mike Dilger heads to the Wash, where you're guaranteed one of our great mammal spectacles.

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The seals are all around us.

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Just the best time of year.

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And Janet Sumner discovers the beauty of the Humber Estuary.

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This is just the most amazing view.

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Yes, estuaries - where our rivers meet the sea, like here on the Exe estuary in Devon.

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They are brilliant places for wildlife - there's a great range of habitats.

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Everything from shallow water to deep water, to salt marsh,

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and perhaps most importantly, lots of this - super mud.

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Now, the Exe may be one of our smaller estuaries, but it supports a wealth of habitats.

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As such, it deservedly has special environmental protection.

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In late autumn, winter and early spring, this estuary is teeming with birds.

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Thousands of them come from northern Europe to join our resident species

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and take advantage of its rich pickings.

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There's probably no better way to get a view of them than to come on this boat.

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One of our first sightings is a really striking bird, the avocet.

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Avocets are always popular, they are a very elegant bird.

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In the past they were a great rarity in Britain.

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They had been persecuted for the hat trade, millinery.

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They have come back and now breed in East Anglia but great numbers of continental birds come to the Exe

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and you get super views of them.

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The avocet's most distinctive feature is its upwardly curved beak,

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which it uses to good effect to find food.

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When you watch avocets feeding,

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what they are doing is scooping that very fine, up-turned bill through the mud.

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They use that to detect any small crustaceans or shellfish that they can find in there.

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This is the curlew, our largest wader.

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It has an easily recognisable down-turned beak, allowing it to probe deep into the mud.

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Tony White, head of RSPB, thanks for the invite for the cruise, it's been fantastic.

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-What is so special about the Exe?

-The birds, absolutely fantastic.

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In the middle of winter here you're looking at 25,000 individual birds here using this estuary.

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And the views you get of these birds are exceptional.

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It's a fantastic resource here as well, a huge amount of mud.

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A lot of people look at mud and think it's wasteland but it isn't.

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If you look closely in that mud, you've got a massive amount of life.

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If you calculate the calorific value of the mud, you're not going to eat this if you're on a diet.

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It is packed with energy, and that's why these birds are here.

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Normally, we conservationists like to prattle on about declines,

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but here it is the reverse, thank goodness.

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Yes, a lot of these birds are doing extremely well.

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Take the avocet, it is increasing in numbers

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in terms of breeding and wintering down here, you are seeing more and more.

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These are birds that are doing great, and it is excellent to be able to talk about birds that are doing well.

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Finally, a Brent goose fly-past.

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These birds have come from northern Siberia to feed on the grassy fields alongside the estuary.

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What they do to stop overgrazing that area, they will feed in a spot,

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fly away and go back precisely four days later.

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Precisely four days later, because in most situations it takes that long for the grass

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to regenerate and produce the maximum amount of nitrogen, and that is what the geese are after.

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The geese have got it sorted down here.

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The reason that all of those birds are here, the reason I am here,

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and the reason I hope you are going to come here

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is this great expanse of mud, which looks so bleak and barren but is in fact far from it,

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as James Chubb, East Devon's Education Officer is going to tell us.

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It's certainly not. The whole place is teeming with life, but you've got to get right down to appreciated it.

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There are cockleshells everywhere.

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There are so many tiny animals because the place is full of microscopic algae and bacteria.

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That is what the smallest of the animals feed on.

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In the mud is another creature, a large delicacy loved by the birds.

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Here, we've got a lugworm cast, and that's where the lugworm has pushed out clean sand

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that it's filtered all the algae from,

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and this entrance hole is where the lugworm has been sucking water in.

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If you imagine underneath the sand here there's a big U-shaped curve

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going in about seven inches below the surface.

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So, it's in with the spade, and hopefully a lugworm will be lurking in the rich mud and algae.

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-There we go.

-Look at that!

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Perfectly encapsulated.

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-It's almost as if we put it there, but we couldn't have done.

-No, that's come out of the Exe mud.

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You've got the head end here, that sucks in water full of dirty sand.

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The sand gets filtered through the stomach, and all the algae gets absorbed and digested from the sand.

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Then clean sand gets pushed out of the rear end.

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Right, after a hard day on the mud flats hunting for worms, this is where a lot of the birds

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come to roost at high tide.

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You've got to check the tide timetables if you're coming to a place like this.

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Bowling Green Marsh is in a narrow part of the estuary further upstream.

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There are waders, plus a whole host of wild fowl.

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Widgeon grazing on the grass. There's a couple of shovelers.

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See the drake - very distinctly marked with that shovel-shaped bill,

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which it uses for sifting through the water.

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That's a pintail up-ending there.

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Look at that. Lovely pointed tail.

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There's a couple of teal there.

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Under-rated the wildfowl, I think - quite a few of our species are really exotic birds.

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Now, if you want exotic, this is the lapwing with its distinctive call.

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And striking good looks, topped off with a wacky head crest.

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It also has a great technique for finding food.

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It twitches its leg!

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It's using the vibration to disturb the invertebrates in the soil.

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When you're this close to birds, it is often tempting to try to get a good photograph of them.

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If you've got a 35mm kit like this, with a big telephoto lens, this is an ideal opportunity.

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Try and keep that lens as steady as possible

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by resting on your coat, especially when you're in a hide.

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And choose a high-speed film as well - the higher the shutter speed the better,

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because many of these species are always moving rapidly, and you'll need that to stop it from blurring.

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And talking of speed...

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..the arrival of a peregrine falcon panics a group of widgeon.

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It powers into them,

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but there's no meal this time and the ducks regroup and return to land.

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I can't think of any other hides in the country that I have visited recently

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and got views as close as this of these sorts of birds.

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The hide is at Bowling Green Marsh

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outside Topsham near Exeter.

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It's open all year and it's free.

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For more details

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check out our website...

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You're watching Hands On Nature, your very own personal guide

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on how to get very close to the best of British wildlife.

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In a moment, Janet Sumner sees what's flying in on the Humber Estuary.

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What have we got?

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It's a linnet, Janet, an adult male.

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Fantastic colours.

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Do remember to take my advice of checking the tide times,

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especially if you want to get the best views of the birds.

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If the tide is out, they will all be out feeding.

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If it's coming in, all the birds will be moving.

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And if the tide is in, they will all be roosting.

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One of the best ways you can check those tide times is to go to the BBC weather site -

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something that Mike Dilger made sure he did

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before he headed off to one of the best estuaries on the east coast.

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The Wash - a vast estuary that stretches for over 100 square-miles.

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And to fully appreciate it you need to take to the water, so I've come to Hunstanton

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on the Norfolk side, where finding a boat is a bit of a challenge.

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If you want to get on a boat, you need a jetty, but one slight problem,

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it's too shallow at Hunstanton. So if you want to see wildlife on the Wash, the boatmen have to be inventive.

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The skipper of this bizarre-looking vessel is William Searls.

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It's a boat that goes to sea, called an amphibian.

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I've never been in anything like it, where did you get it from?

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We acquired it after a long search,

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and we believe it was used in Vietnam to carry troops and tanks.

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From the Mekong Delta to the Wash, and a sandbank known simply as Seal Island.

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This is what we came for.

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The common seals coming out to bask in the sun on the sandbanks.

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And "common" is not a very good name for them

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because there's two species of seal in Britain, the grey and the common.

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The rarest is the common!

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So really, maybe it should be called the uncommon seal!

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The colony is here all year round, but the best time to visit is June or July

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when the common seals have just had their pups.

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I keep hearing calls, what are those?

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That's the pup calling to the mother cos the mother's just come off the bank to start feeding,

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and he's got separated, but they will catch up again.

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It looks sometimes as if they're having a surf ride with the mother - is that right?

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Yes, they ride on the mother's necks, that's the newborn ones.

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-Then they separate a little bit.

-Become more independent as time goes on.

-Yes.

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I've been given a fantastic opportunity to nip onto the sand bank.

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The water's rising - we're almost going to get cut off if we are not careful!

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But the seals are all around us.

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It's just the best time of year.

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We've got adult bull males, mothers, really young pups.

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It's just terrific.

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Minutes later, and it's all gone.

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The tide has reclaimed Seal Island.

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Two months on, in late summer, I headed to the other side of the estuary

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in Lincolnshire to see what tasty morsels are hidden in its depths.

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But to fully appreciate what's under the water, we're going to need one of these and an army of these.

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Come on kids, let's go sea dipping!

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-YEAH!

-Are you ready to go kids?

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Excellent! Most important thing, you've all got your shoes on? Because we've got weaver fish here

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so we have to be careful of our feet. And you've got your nets?

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'Some of the nets that Education Officer Kim Hudson has given us

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'are made out of ladies' tights and plastic bottles!'

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Are you ready to go? Let's go!

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'Apparently, they are the ideal tool for sea dipping.

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'And Gibraltar Point near Skegness is the perfect place to have a go.'

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To the uninitiated, Kim, it looks mucky, dirty and polluted, but it's not, is it?

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No, everyone always presumes that, but it's got a lot of mud in it because we've got muddy shores,

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sandy shores, the rivers opening up into the Wash.

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Let's have a look at what you've got.

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'Surely everyone knows the starfish, but few are familiar with its bizarre table manners.

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'The way it engulfs and swallows its food.'

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Do you know how these eat? It's amazing.

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Their stomach is right in the middle, and they can eject the whole of their stomach outside

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and completely swallow it back down again.

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Kim, it's worth bearing in mind you've got to be really safe around the shore edge, it can be dangerous.

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I would say little ones need to be up to their knees - they shouldn't go any deeper.

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Always have an adult around. Make sure there is someone onshore watching them.

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Stuart, the lad with the big net, has found these two cracking little crabs.

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And this one particularly, is a female.

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If you look under her abdomen, there's a massive egg case.

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And of course, when you're holding crabs, make sure you hold them either side of the shell -

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that way, you don't get nipped by the pincers!

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Kim, we've done rather well.

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-Yes, brilliant catching.

-What's your highlight, do you think?

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I always love the pipefish.

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'This is a relative of the seahorse.

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'You can see the resemblance from its pointed snout.

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'And just like the seahorse, when the pipefish has young, the female takes a back seat.'

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The man does all the work. The female will lay the eggs,

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the male will have them in his pouch and brood those, and then they'll hatch out.

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Thank you very much, kids, for finding such brilliant creatures.

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But there's much more than sea dipping and seals, and to find one of the great Norfolk spectacles,

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I'm going to have to get up tomorrow morning at dawn.

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It's a beautiful morning at the RSPB reserves in Snettisham.

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It's not the early start that's critical. We've come here for one of the highest tides of the year

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because the high tide brings the spectacle we're after.

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It's a gathering of the feathered clans.

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Wave after wave of birds are constantly on the move,

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as the tide rises, covering their feeding areas.

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The reason why the Wash is so wonderful for waders is down to this -

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mile after mile of mud.

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But when the high tide comes in, their breakfast, dinner and tea are completely covered,

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so they have to go to roost in the pits behind, and with luck, they should fly straight over my head.

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Some of the birds have already settled in the old gravel pits, which are a perfect refuge.

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Out on the mud, there's a whole variety of waders,

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but the final guests at this party are about to make a spectacular entrance.

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15,000 knots.

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One of the first migrants to return from their breeding grounds in the High Arctic.

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It's still effectively high summer, and the birds have just arrived,

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so a lot of them are still in full summer plumage,

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which is this lovely terracotta, brick-red colour, right over their bellies.

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These birds have just flown a huge distance from Greenland and north-east Canada.

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The sea is just lapping against the edge of the flock.

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On the edge, they're getting their feet wet and are flying over to the other side.

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They're just not ready to go yet,

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but I think it's going to be a question of any second now.

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The oystercatcher and the knot are in one enormous flock.

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The oystercatchers are the first to make a dash for the gravel pits.

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And as the last bits of exposed mud disappear, it's the turn of the knot.

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The tide's just about in...

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And look around me...

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There are knot everywhere in a massive flock!

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Look, right over my head.

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All I can hear is the sound of the lapping waves covering the mud

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and the sound of thousands of knot flying over my head to the pits behind.

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WHOOSHING

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Fantastic!

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To see that bird spectacle,

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visit the RSPB Snettisham reserve

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in Norfolk.

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Late summer and autumn are best.

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You can find more information

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on our website...

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Another one of our largest estuaries is in the North of England, at the mouth of the River Humber.

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Just 25 miles downstream from Hull is a naturalist paradise.

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Janet Sumner has been to Spurn Point.

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Spurn is a fragile and unique environment.

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It's connected to the mainland by a three and a half mile thin strip of sand and shingle.

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What makes it so different is it's a landscape on the move.

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Spurn Point is really a bit of an oddity.

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This side gets pounded by the North Sea every day and it's got a real coastal feel.

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But on the other side, you've got the River Humber and one of the largest estuaries in Britain.

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It's like two different worlds existing side-by-side.

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This stretch of coastline is eroding away,

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and you'll find a lot of the debris has been washed down the coast to Spurn.

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Forage on the beach and you'll find all sorts of rocks from further north

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that have been pushed south by time and tide.

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One of the best ways of understanding what's happening on the ground is to get a bit of height.

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This is just the most amazing view!

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From up here, you can see the big curved shape of Spurn Point.

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There have been at least five Spurns.

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The others have all been washed away, but every time, a new one grows in its place.

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Spurn's real claim to fame is its bird life.

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Thousands of migrants pass through here.

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Bird watcher Mike Coverdale is qualified to monitor their movements by trapping.

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Mike, so these are the mist nets, aren't they?

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-Just incredibly fine.

-Yes.

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They are made of very fine material, so the birds can't see them.

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So when they are flying along, they fly into the net.

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Then the people that are ringing birds look at the nets regularly,

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take the bird out, ring it, let the bird go and it is totally unharmed.

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-What have you got?

-It's a linnet, an adult male.

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Fantastic colours.

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Beautiful red on it.

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Is it here on Spurn to breed, or just passing through?

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This bird is here to breed. It will have arrived here in April

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from southern Europe, spend summer here, raising at least two broods of young.

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It will change these feathers, the bright feathers will wear during the year.

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Once it's done that, it will migrate south

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to southern Europe with the rest of the linnets and lots of other birds.

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The birds aren't the only reason to come here. I've enlisted Pete Bowler to show me why.

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Peter, we are on the hunt for Spurn's most beautiful reptile.

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I've got an unusual piece of kit here that you made me bring along.

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-What am I going to do with it?

-We are going to see if we can attract common lizards

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to come out and sunbathe, warm up their bodies on this piece of wood with kitchen foil wrapped around it.

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It helps the lizards to warm up.

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We'll leave that for a couple of hours and come back and see if we've got any luck.

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Maybe we'll be lucky.

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'While the lizard trap was warming up, it was time to do a bit of newt hunting on the salt marsh.'

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You just have to be patient and persistent.

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-Hang on!

-Have you got one?

-I have.

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We nearly didn't see that.

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Down in the corner, curled up, playing dead.

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So that's the female smooth newt, isn't it?

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-It is.

-Oh, she's off!

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Spectacular, lovely golden-brown colour.

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Nice dark stripes on the edges of the back.

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A cute little face.

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They've got really endearing faces.

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Let's put it back down where we found it, tucked in that corner.

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-Where we found it.

-That would be great.

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'We return the smooth newt to her home, and it's back to our sun trap

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'which has been hotting up, but sadly has not enticed a lizard.'

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We've had no luck with the suntrap, but there's definitely lizards on that wall.

0:23:150:23:19

It's a great site for lizards to occupy because it's a south-facing wall - catches all the sun.

0:23:190:23:24

The stones reflect the heat to help them warm up, lots of insects.

0:23:240:23:28

Look! There's one there at the bottom of the wall.

0:23:280:23:30

-Yes.

-Just coming out of the grass.

-Yep, I see him.

0:23:300:23:34

He's got lovely little spots along his back. Is that a male or female?

0:23:340:23:38

It's difficult to tell from here. If you're not sure whether it's male or female,

0:23:380:23:42

if you've got a camera, take a photo of it and check on the internet or in a book.

0:23:420:23:46

Whatever you do, don't try and catch it

0:23:460:23:49

because lizards can shed their tails as part of their escape mechanism.

0:23:490:23:53

If the tail breaks off, they waste energy re-growing it and they become more vulnerable.

0:23:530:23:57

Oh! It's gone! Just dropped down into the grass. That was brilliant!

0:23:570:24:01

-I'm glad we've seen one.

-Excellent.

0:24:010:24:03

Spurn is one of those places that has wildlife oddities.

0:24:170:24:22

Sometimes you can get almost biblical plagues of creatures here.

0:24:220:24:25

Recently, there have been massive numbers of garden tiger moth caterpillars.

0:24:250:24:29

But this year, there's lots and lots of lackey moths.

0:24:290:24:32

The striped colours of these lackey moths resemble the livery worn by servants or lackies,

0:24:340:24:39

hence their name. And you can often find them in these communal nests.

0:24:390:24:42

It's like a caterpillar nursery.

0:24:420:24:46

Crucial to the survival of this landscape are its plants, and Denise Coverdale is going to show me why.

0:24:480:24:55

This stuff - I recognise that, that's really common plants for sand dunes, isn't it, these grasses?

0:24:560:25:03

Yes, they are. It's all marram grass and lime grass.

0:25:030:25:07

Lime grass in particular is a stunning grass.

0:25:070:25:10

These plants, these are actually holding Spurn Point together.

0:25:100:25:14

-They bind the sand dunes together.

-Yes, they are. They come in quickly.

0:25:140:25:19

One example being that this winter we lost a lot of sand dune area

0:25:190:25:25

at the top of Spurn here. A lot more sand was brought in,

0:25:250:25:28

and within months all these have come back through again.

0:25:280:25:31

Real pioneers!

0:25:310:25:33

Very much so.

0:25:330:25:34

-This has got really pretty flowers, and the bees are going mad for it!

-Yes, they are.

0:25:360:25:42

It has a lovely smell. When you get close to it, a lovely scent.

0:25:420:25:47

-What is it?

-Sea rocket.

0:25:470:25:49

Very fleshy leaves.

0:25:490:25:51

It does look a bit like rocket, the rocket you get in your salad.

0:25:510:25:56

And it has got incredibly waxy leaves.

0:25:560:26:00

Is that typical for plants on the sand or on the dunes?

0:26:000:26:04

It is the plant's way of retaining as much water as it can.

0:26:040:26:07

That's quite good advice, not just to look things up in your flower book or take photographs,

0:26:070:26:14

but to get down and start feeling the plants and smelling them, because these do feel quite different.

0:26:140:26:20

As you leave the beachy side of Spurn Point, the plant life changes again.

0:26:220:26:26

This is one of the best salt marsh habitats in the whole of the British Isles.

0:26:260:26:31

What is this strange little plant that you've brought me here to see?

0:26:350:26:39

It is rather strange. It has two names. One is glasswort, the other one is marsh sunfire.

0:26:390:26:44

Marsh sunfire - people recognise it as being something... People cut it and pickle it and then eat it.

0:26:440:26:51

It's edible! What does it taste like?

0:26:510:26:53

Rather salty.

0:26:530:26:55

Oh, it is! It's incredibly salty.

0:26:550:26:59

And it's got this waxy, sort of fleshy feel to it again.

0:26:590:27:04

Yes, it's like a lot of the other plants, it's trying to keep as much water in as it can

0:27:040:27:08

and protect itself from saltwater.

0:27:080:27:11

It's amazing that these plants adapt themselves to live in quite horrible,

0:27:110:27:17

hostile, environments. It's remarkable.

0:27:170:27:20

Spurn is just 25 miles east of Hull.

0:27:240:27:28

Stop when you get to the sea.

0:27:280:27:30

It's managed by the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust.

0:27:300:27:32

Check out our website for more information...

0:27:420:27:45

Well, that's all we've got time for, but before we go, look at this.

0:27:470:27:51

It's not just the birds that come down here to the Exe Estuary to gather shellfish.

0:27:510:27:55

These ladies are here trying to fill their bucket with cockles, like this one, ready for their supper.

0:27:550:28:01

I'm told they boil them and then pickle them in vinegar, or they fry them in egg with breadcrumbs.

0:28:010:28:06

When we were kids, we used to crack them open alive and knock it back with a swig of whisky!

0:28:060:28:11

These days, I'll leave my share for the birds.

0:28:110:28:14

Well, that's it for this series of Hands on Nature.

0:28:170:28:20

Time to stop watching the telly

0:28:200:28:22

and get out there amongst all of this wonderful wildlife.

0:28:220:28:27

Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd

0:28:340:28:37

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.


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