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Why spring is a great time to see these secretive species

Posted on 28 Mar 2019

As the weather starts to warm up and the sap rises, birds like oystercatchers, avocets and godwits that have migrated to warmer climes over the winter will start to trickle and then flood back to UK shores. Some of them have already been sighted at our centres.

But it's not all about the migrating bird species. Here in the UK, some of our species that can be seen all year round are already a hive of activity, finding a mate and rearing young. As these species are quite secretive or shy, they can often be harder to see during other times of the year.

Grey heron flying

Grey Heron

The grey heron, one of the tallest birds found in wetlands, doesn't migrate and as a result starts its egg-laying as early as February. The eggs are pale blue-green, and heron chicks are covered in long dark down which is bristly on the top of the head, giving them a rather comical appearance.

Juvenile grey heron

Grey herons live in huge nests in trees, near water, often grouped together in pods known as heronries. However, in the north of Britain they often choose cliffs, reed-beds or bushes. The nests get very large as they are used repeatedly. Inevitably, they eventually crash down to the ground, but fortunately, this usually happens in the high winds of winter. Nesting begins early in the year and the male defends his own tree-top territory. He can get very snappy and irritable!

Grey heron nesting

A closer look: The heron’s normally bright yellow bill turns pink while breeding. The males call frequently, to attract a female. He displays by stretching his beak upwards and if she’s interested, he lowers his head over his back and claps his bill repeatedly. This display is apparently very appealing to a female heron as he repeats this regularly to maintain their pair bond.


During early spring, kingfishers are busy nest building and preparing for their new broods, and this flurry of activity among the still fairly bare trees makes them easier to see.

Kingfishers are unusually fair when it comes to sharing out tasks. Both male and female take part in the building project, which lasts anywhere between a week and 12 days. Whilst the female is forming the eggs, the male helps her by fetching little fish for her to give her extra energy. The fish is passed from beak to beak and this in itself helps to strengthen the bond between the couple.

Kingfisher bonding

A closer look: Despite the vibrancy of the blues in their plumage, there is not one scrap of blue pigment in a kingfisher. Instead, the feathers have a physical structure that scatters light, and strongly reflects blue. This is why, with only a slight shift in the bird’s position, altering the angle that light falls on to it, the bird may appear to change from blue to green.

Kingfisher sitting

European water vole

If you don’t get a chance to note the blunt face, seemingly spherical body and fuzzy tail, the unmistakable ‘plop’ will give it away - it’s a water vole!

Water vole nest building

Notoriously shy, they were already struggling due to habitat loss. Then the introduction of the American mink decimated their population which fell by up to 90% by the late 1980s.

Nevertheless, the European water vole is slowly appearing at some of our wetland reserves, and if you’re lucky enough you might see (or hear) one.

They’re easier to see during early spring for a few reasons. For the water voles that have survived the winter, early spring is the sign to get a head start on producing their young, called pups. The pursuit of finding a mate brings them out of hiding, and they’re extremely territorial, despite looking so adorable! Because of this, they tend to be aggressive to their neighbours.

The female water vole will also deviate from her usual vegetarian diet to eat caddisflies and snails during pregnancy, so will be more active to find this food.

Water vole vs brown rat

A closer look: the water vole is distinguishable from the brown rat by its rounder face, hidden ears and fur-covered tail. The brown rat has a bald pink tail and a pointed face.

Have you seen any of these wetland creatures? Share your photos and stories with us on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram or email waterlife@wwt.org.uk

All these species and many more rely on wetlands to live and breed. Yet wetlands are disappearing three times faster than forests. We need your help in our mission to restore, create and protect new life.

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