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Wetlands

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Welcome to Hands On Nature. I'm Chris Packham and this is your guide

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to some cracking nature spots around the UK.

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Today, we're looking at what a bit of water can do for our wildlife as we explore Britain's wetlands.

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I'm in East Anglia, enjoying the resplendent world of damsel and dragonflies.

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Mike Dilger's deep in a reed bed in Somerset.

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That's Britain's heaviest bird taking off.

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Sanjida O'Connell is in Lancashire, after a very elusive bird.

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And the reason why I've come here is to see a rather mysterious creature which sounds a bit like this...

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LOW TONE

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This is Wicken Fen Nature Reserve in Cambridgeshire.

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It's a brilliant place, it's somewhere you should come.

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More than 200 different species of birds have been seen here,

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25 different types of mammal live here,

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19 species of dragonfly, and, get this, 1,000 different types of moth.

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Surely this is a spot you can't afford to miss.

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Wicken Fen was THE first nature reserve to be bought by the National Trust, way back in 1899.

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The 1,500-acre site is a tiny remnant of the watery wilderness

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that once characterised the whole of East Anglia.

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Undoubtedly, one of the best ways to explore these rivers, or loads,

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as this channel is called, is on one of these Fenland longboats.

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You can just gaze down into the clear waters here and literally look into a different world.

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The water supports an abundance of wildlife,

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but I'm looking for one thing in particular - the aerial master of the insect world.

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Now, to find these creatures, like most wildlife,

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one of the best things you can do is to look for the right habitat.

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-Rory Mackenzie Dodds, you've been looking for the right habitat for a long time...

-Indeed.

-..and know it.

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-What do you make of this?

-It's absolutely brilliant, Chris.

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It's a lovely, lovely site here.

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You've got the three key sorts of plants which are attractive,

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you've got lots of oxygenators in the water, which keep the water nice and clear,

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-and then you've got the surface coverers, like white water lilies...

-Looking very nice.

-Very nice.

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..and then above those you've got these tall, stemmed plants.

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These are the three key groups which are really attractive habitat.

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-And there...

-Right! OK, yes, absolutely.

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It's the star of our show - a dragonfly. Look at that.

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This is the stunning Emperor dragonfly,

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the largest of a family that's been around for 300 million years, much longer than us humans.

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This one is a brown hawker.

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It's decided it's a perfect place for a female brown hawker to lay her eggs,

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so it is guarding this territory, waiting for her female to come along.

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When that happens, he will mate with her, and she will be ready to lay her eggs along both sides of the pond.

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-Good start.

-There is a damselfly down here. Two!

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This pair of damselflies are laying their eggs,

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with the male holding onto the female to ensure that no other males muscle in.

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The egg hatches into a nymph, which lives underwater for around three years -

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hence the importance of those oxygenating plants -

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before it emerges from the water and sheds its skin to transform into the adult dragonfly.

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This is the dried-out skin of the last aquatic stage of this dragonfly,

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and here is the adult insect that has emerged from it.

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At the moment, it is pumping its wings full of fluid, and in the process of drying out.

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But just over here is another one that is a few hours ahead of it.

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Shortly, it will be taking to the wing and starting its process of looking for a mate.

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-Look, a four-spotted chaser.

-That is. They're unmistakable.

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What you need to look out for is the four little spots in the middle of each wing.

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-How many species here? Five or six?

-Five or six, just dragonflies, yes.

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And there's actually three or four down here.

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There are three of four types of damselfly too.

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And how do you tell the difference between damsels and dragons?

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Effectively damselflies are smaller and more delicate, but there is a trick, Chris, which is

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when you see them land, if they park their wings along their backs...

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-Folded behind?

-Folded behind, exactly.

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..the chances are that it is an damselfly.

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If the lay them out flat, like an normal aeroplane, it is a dragonfly.

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-This is dragonfly heaven, isn't it?

-It is absolutely perfect..

-And yet we're not even on the the reserve.

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-This is just a pond-dipping area for kids.

-And they've created a perfect heaven for dragonflies.

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These insects need sunshine to heat up their bodies in order to fly.

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They use their wings as solar panels.

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Now then, what have these children found in a nearby pond?

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-Hello there, James.

-Hello.

-What have you got, then?

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So far, I've got a great crested newt. I think it's a female.

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It certainly is. What a fantastic animal.

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-Beautiful. Have you seen its belly?

-Yeah.

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Lovely and marbled and black underneath. It is a female - it's a bit bigger than the male.

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The great crested is the largest newt found in Britain, and can live up to 27 years.

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But it is endangered, so you need a licence to handle it.

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What a fantastic animal. It just goes to prove what a wealth of wildlife there is here at Wicken.

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Now, here's a little tip.

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Dragonflies often return to the same perching spot,

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so if you're patient and keep still...

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This common dart has been landing on this stick in front of me for some time,

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so I thought I'd stick my finger out and see if he'd choose my finger instead of the stick.

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And it's given me the best views of a dragonfly I've had all day.

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Let's see if he does it one more time.

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Just look at that.

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Oh, it's like having a pet.

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He goes off for a little fly, chases another dragonfly, and then he's back to my hand.

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It's like falconing, but with dragonflies.

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Look at that!

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What a stunning creature.

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Now, this habitat may look perfectly natural to you, but I'm afraid it isn't.

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It's been managed by man for centuries.

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One of the principal uses of an area like this was to cut the sedge for thatch.

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Well, these days that's largely redundant,

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and if we were to leave this area, it would rapidly become woodland.

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It'd be a disaster - we want wetland here - so they've come up with a new way of managing the vegetation.

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I say new, but, in fact, it was happening thousands of years ago,

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when bison and wolves and bears were roaming this land.

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These stunning-looking animals are konik ponies.

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They are one of the closest relatives to the primal ponies that roamed over Europe.

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And the warden, Carol Laidlaw, knows more about these herds than most.

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We've got them here because they're wetland specialists. They're so hardy, and have a placid temperament.

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You need an animal that is not going to be aggressive or bolshy.

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-Just a bit curious.

-Just a bit curious, yes.

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They're no respecters of body space, as you can see.

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-But they are here to graze the site?

-Yes.

-In a traditional fashion.

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The National Trust has a huge expansion project on that is going to last the next hundred years,

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and it is going to become unsustainable to buy machinery and people to manage the land,

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so the best way to do it is to get these guys out to act as natural wardens.

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-They're out 365 days of the year.

-365 days of the year, yep. Rain or shine.

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Rain or shine...

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Beautiful as these animals are, Karen has one important tip for visitors.

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The general advice is, if you want to come and see these horses, um, use binoculars and watch them from afar.

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Don't approach them - these are wild animals and they're not predictable.

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-They're quite curious today, and they're behaving themselves.

-Yes.

-Let's hope they prosper.

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The National Trust plans to expand this fen over the next hundred years

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until it's 17 miles long, stretching all the way down towards Cambridge.

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What a thought that is.

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Wicken Fen is six miles south of Ely in Cambridgeshire, and it's open all year.

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If you're not a National Trust member, there's a small charge.

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You can hire a fen boat for 12 people if you book in advance.

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It costs around £60.

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There are more details on our website.

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This is Hands On Nature, your guide to the very best wildlife spots in the UK.

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Stay with us because we're going to be joining Sanjida O'Connell

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for the bird that loves causing trouble in our wetlands.

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If you're into your wetlands, there is one place you really must go.

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You see, it's incredibly low-lying, so it frequently floods, and it's a top spot for birds.

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Mike Dilger headed down to England's West Country to get to grips with the famous Somerset Levels.

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This unique landscape is one of the lowest, flattest areas in the country.

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In ancient times it was known as the summer lands

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because it was too wet to graze in the winter. It's thought this is how Somerset got its name.

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I'm walking along the oldest known engineered roadway in Europe.

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Just below my feet is a wooden trackway

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that was built over 6,000 years ago to enable people to cross the wet lands.

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And down the centuries, it's been a similar story,

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as humans have really struggled to farm and manage this boggy wetland.

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I wouldn't want to walk across this without a trackway either!

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BIRDSONG

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Dawn in the reed beds on a spring day.

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All the birds are belting their hearts out.

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Top tip - when listening for birds, THIS is amazing.

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It accentuates the sound and you can find out where they are singing from.

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I know I look a bit of a pillock, but it doesn't half sound good.

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Spring is the time for elaborate courtship rituals.

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The great crested grebe presents its mates with a love token.

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The gift is accepted.

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These reeds are the bird equivalent of a bunch of flowers.

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Unmistakable noise of mute swan wings slapping against the water.

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They take off like jumbo jets.

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That's Britain's heaviest bird taking off.

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From a bird that's white all over to one with just a white throat...

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For some reason, it's called a whitethroat(!)

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It's not the best singer in the world but it does this little power shoot up when it first arrives.

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It went up 10, 15 metres and then plummets down, singing all the way, with its breast out, like that.

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The most amazing thing about this bird is it's just crossed the Sahara to get here to Somerset.

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It's not just birds I'm listening to as well.

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Have a listen to this.

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DEEP GRUNTING

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That's a frog, a marsh frog. It's not a native British species.

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It was introduced into Britain in the 1930s

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by a Hungarian zoologist,

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believe it or not, from Kent,

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who put them into his garden pond, and they spread as far as Somerset.

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So now part of the dawn chorus, in addition to the birds, is the marsh frog.

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On the edge of the reed beds is Swell Wood, where one distinctive bird likes to raise its young.

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The Somerset Levels are such a rich, fantastic place for feeding birds,

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including one of our most recognisable species, which love nesting together.

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I'm here with Harry Paget-Wilkes from the RSPB, and we're here to count the heron nests.

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The wood is a great vantage point from which herons fly out

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to scour the waterways for food to bring back to their treetop nests.

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SQUAWKING

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They look primeval. They're ancient, they look like vultures or pterodactyls.

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It's like a sight of Britain nearly 10,000 years ago.

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You don't hear herons make a lot of noise normally. It's quite an experience.

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Of course, when you see them... Most people think of them sitting there with their neck drawn like a dagger,

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-ready to puncture the fish, and they're incredibly quiet, but here...

-But here, a total different story.

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You wouldn't believe it was the same species, really. They're just behaving very differently.

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How have we done? What's the grand total?

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Pretty good. It's 97 - more than the count I did earlier in the year.

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-So over the last few decades, has the colony been going up or down?

-Up. It's been slowly increasing.

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It varies a lot from year to year, but the trend is definitely up.

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Do you have any tips for heron watching?

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If you're going to come here, come early.

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They nest early. Once you get to May, the leaves are out on the trees, so come before then -

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March, April. A brilliant time to come and look at them.

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Of course, the Somerset Levels aren't just a paradise for birds.

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They are also home to an amazing array of plants. You're about to see one of my favourite habitats.

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The lowland unimproved meadows, full of gorgeous plants like this.

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Unimproved - what's that all about?

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Basically, if you stick fertiliser on this field,

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nasty, aggressive common plants and grasses will grow up

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and overnight will out-compete these and they'll disappear completely.

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This cowslip is one of our classic meadow plants.

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These little purple spikes you can see all over the place are bugle,

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and nestling in amongst these flowers, the lovely, sumptuous green-winged orchid.

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They are called green-winged because if you look at the sepals, which are like tiny petals,

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they have lovely green lines running through them.

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Somerset Levels are characterised by thousands of miles of these.

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They've got loads of names -

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ditches, drains, dykes, or known locally as rhynes - and they serve two purposes -

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to drain the land and to serve as boundaries to keep in the cattle.

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But I tell you what, they're brilliant for wildlife!

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So, I've arranged to meet Pat Hill-Cottingham,

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who knows the wildlife of these rhynes like no other in Somerset,

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particularly the little ones, and the molluscs and the snails and the beetles.

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-Hello, Pat.

-Hello there.

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There's a nice big water snail.

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It takes you back to your childhood, this.

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There's a little cosmopolitan world living in that water.

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You never lose your excitement in pond-dipping. Every time you dip in, you could find something fantastic.

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-But it can be frustrating when you don't find what you hope to find.

-Shall we have another dip?

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I'm kind of hopeful that we might have something that might move. ..Oh, steady!

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The most important tip of all - these places are potentially dangerous,

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so always bring a buddy to fish you out if you fall in.

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I notice you got a very specialised technique with your net.

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If you fiddle it gently...

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Excuse me - fiddle - that's a new word on me.

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Well, it's my word. If you just do it gently, as I do, in little small movements,

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you wash the stuff into the net but you don't create tremendous disturbance around,

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so you are much more likely to get more species.

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-We've done well, haven't we? These three snails, for starters... The ramshorn, yeah?

-The great ramshorn.

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And that's the great pond snail. And that is the river snail.

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Now, I know what this certainly is because I love dragonflies and damselflies.

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-This is a damselfly larvae.

-Yes.

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This is a really specialised critter.

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-Caddis larvae.

-He's built a home from little bits of reed.

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How long are they in the larvae form before they turn into caddis flies?

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Most of them, about three years.

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This beast here is one of my favourites.

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He looks really fearsome with those claws, doesn't he?

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-He's a water scorpion. He grabs them and sucks the living daylights out of them.

-Yes!

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Talking of predators...

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the great silver diving beetle.

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Is it just about the biggest beetle in Britain?

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-Yes.

-When you look underneath, because he traps air so he can breathe,

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he's got a lovely silvery colour.

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The top tip is - make sure you put back everything where you found it.

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To spot herons in the spring, head for Swell Wood.

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It's part of the West Sedgemoor RSPB Reserve, near Taunton.

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And for the other wildlife, visit the Ham Wall National Nature Reserve, near Glastonbury.

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Both reserves are free.

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More details are on our website...

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Some of us are given over to the idea that the best things in life are birds.

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One of the best places for birds are our wetlands.

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In the summer, you've got the breeding species - everything from reed warblers to herons.

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In the autumn, they're supermarkets, where birds like house martins come to fatten up before long flights.

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In the winter, they are often packed full of waders and wildfowl.

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One of our best wetland reserves is in the north of England, Leighton Moss.

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Sanjida O'Connell went up there to take a look through her binoculars.

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Early morning sees this Lancashire reserve at its magical best.

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It has all sorts of wildlife, from the very unusual...

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to the very familiar.

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This is beautiful.

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It has to be one of the most stunning wetland areas in Britain.

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I've come to see a rather mysterious creature, which sounds a bit like this...

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LOW TONE

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The booming cry of the bittern might be distinctive,

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but am I going to be able to spot this secretive creature amongst all the other birds?

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The reason why this place is so fantastic

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is because you've got two very different habitats side by side -

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freshwater here and salt water down there.

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That means you end up with a really rich diversity of wildlife.

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This watery world of plants and animals

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has disappeared from much of the UK, but at Leighton Moss the water's been reinstated.

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And as with most of our wetlands, the conservation work is ongoing.

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This habitat looks completely natural,

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but it needs constant attention or else it will disappear.

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What happens is that the soil accumulates,

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and shrubs and bushes will come in and colonise the area.

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What they are doing at Leighton Moss is cutting down small areas of the reed beds every 25 years or so.

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That means that more plants and animals can come in, and that increases the biodiversity.

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And the reeds are where the food chain starts.

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Insects are prey for fish and other animals,

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but top of the pile is the bittern -

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an endangered bird that's also one of our largest.

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Head warden Robin Horner is its number one fan.

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It has a special call, it's called a boom, it's quite a rare bird.

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It's thought that the females are looking for the best-quality boom.

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If there was more than one male in the reed bed here, then the female's gonna choose...

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-Go for the best quality!

-..the bittern with the best-quality boom.

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-They draw breath into their lungs.

-Can you show me?

-Yeah. I'm not a bittern...but you draw breath...

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HE GASPS

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..like that, fill lungs with air,

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and then tilt the head back and then push all the air out, so you sort of...

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boom... It's a lot of effort.

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Is there any element of learning?

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Absolutely. Young bitterns, we call them "grunters"... It doesn't sound very nice.

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Because that's all they can manage, a grunt?

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Yeah! People don't realise that they also have to learn at the beginning of the season.

0:22:310:22:35

They sort of go...

0:22:350:22:37

HE GRUNTS

0:22:370:22:39

-It might be just one or...

-Lucky to impress the females with that!

0:22:390:22:43

Yeah, absolutely.

0:22:430:22:44

LOW BOOMING

0:22:470:22:50

Well, I can hear it, but I can't quite see it.

0:22:520:22:55

Bitterns fly low over the reed beds, so that's where I've trained my binoculars.

0:22:550:23:01

The sound echoes for miles but, frustratingly, I still can't see it.

0:23:010:23:07

Maybe I should try a bit higher, so I'm looking down on the reed beds.

0:23:160:23:21

And at last, there it is.

0:23:230:23:27

I know it's a long way off, but this is actually a really good view

0:23:310:23:36

of one of our rarest and most elusive birds.

0:23:360:23:40

One of the reasons why Leighton Moss is so great for bitterns is because a lot of eels live here.

0:23:470:23:52

These elvets have travelled all the way from the Sargasso Sea in the Caribbean.

0:23:520:23:58

They'll make tasty, protein-packed snacks for the bitterns.

0:23:580:24:01

And it's food like this that drives the life cycle on the freshwater part of the reserve.

0:24:010:24:08

But the salt-water lagoons nearby a have a totally separate ecosystem.

0:24:090:24:14

They contain a different food source, which attracts even more birds.

0:24:140:24:20

And this is what they are all after.

0:24:290:24:31

It's packed full of tiny flounder - flat, transparent fish - and there's a shrimp in here as well.

0:24:310:24:38

And pint for pint, there's more crustacea in here

0:24:380:24:41

than there are invertebrates over there in the freshwater lagoons.

0:24:410:24:45

It's a bit like minestrone over that way, and this is what my mum might call "eating and drinking soup".

0:24:450:24:51

One of the fantastic things about coming to Leighton Moss

0:24:530:24:57

is that if you've got family, you can borrow one of these.

0:24:570:25:00

It's an explorer's pack and it's full of bits and pieces.

0:25:000:25:03

You've got pens and pencils, a little mirror in there.

0:25:030:25:06

Various guide books. There's even a pair of binoculars.

0:25:060:25:11

There's one animal here whose noise just fills the air.

0:25:130:25:17

It's a bird many of us take for granted, but when you get up close to the black-headed gulls

0:25:170:25:23

you can really appreciate the beauty of the chocolate-brown of their summer plumage.

0:25:230:25:28

When you see farmers ploughing, the gulls following the plough will be these.

0:25:280:25:32

They were termed "land gulls" because they spent their time on the land...

0:25:320:25:37

so following the plough, feeding in fields...

0:25:370:25:40

They are highly territorial and chase everything off, whether you're a heron...

0:25:420:25:47

a marsh harrier...

0:25:470:25:49

..or even a red deer.

0:25:520:25:54

Like an angry mob, these gulls know no fear.

0:25:540:25:59

This is fantastic, Robin.

0:26:010:26:03

Indeed.

0:26:030:26:05

Look at them in the air.

0:26:050:26:07

Yeah, I mean, black-headed gulls are the most hyperactive

0:26:070:26:12

of birds, really. They never stop.

0:26:120:26:14

You come down in the middle of the night and you approach,

0:26:140:26:18

-and suddenly, they'll start to have a good banter.

-It must be peaceful in the winter, when they've left?

0:26:180:26:24

-Most of the year, there's plenty of noise. In October, we got the red deer in rut...

-Oh, right.

0:26:240:26:30

so the gulls have gone, but something else is making the noise.

0:26:300:26:34

And then if you're up for the dawn chorus...

0:26:340:26:36

That's special. There's a real peak of bird noise at the dawn chorus.

0:26:360:26:41

To some extent a little bit at dusk as well, but not quite as intense.

0:26:410:26:46

One final thing to do at Leighton Moss is to come at lunchtime

0:26:500:26:55

when moth expert Tori Summerell is emptying her traps.

0:26:550:26:59

Most people tend to think of British moths as being quite plain, a little bit boring,

0:27:010:27:07

but this is absolutely fantastic because that is a British moth.

0:27:070:27:12

A member of the hawk moth family.

0:27:120:27:15

People just don't expect to see that in the UK, and it's here!

0:27:150:27:20

The poplar hawk moth - what an incredible creature!

0:27:220:27:26

What a spot!

0:27:310:27:33

And what a fantastic booming bird.

0:27:340:27:38

Check out the web for more info.

0:27:500:27:54

Just look at this - I really can't think of a better way of getting into the heart of a habitat.

0:27:540:27:59

We are pushing through this dense reed bed.

0:27:590:28:02

The birds are singing, butterflies are thronged along the banks

0:28:020:28:06

and there are elegant water lilies on the surface of the water. Fantastic, absolutely fantastic!

0:28:060:28:12

Sadly, that is the end of our programme.

0:28:120:28:15

Hopefully we'll see you again next time for some more Hands On Nature.

0:28:150:28:19

When Mike Dilger will be climbing the Brecon Beacons

0:28:190:28:23

in search of the blackbird of the mountains.

0:28:230:28:26

It's just such a red-letter day for me.

0:28:260:28:29

And I visit England's southern heathlands,

0:28:290:28:33

stronghold of our rarest reptiles.

0:28:330:28:36

Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd - 2005

0:28:360:28:40

Chris Packham and his team visit Britain's best wetlands as they continue their guide to the country's top wildlife hotpots. He learns how to spot dragonflies in East Anglia and listens to the mysterious call of the bittern in Lancashire.


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