Sights and Sounds

In our wonderful Ouse Valley we have an amazing opportunity to get out and engage with nature. And it is good for us to do so. At the current time (May 2020) we are restricted from walking too close together, and for very good reasons, but it is also acknowledged that we need to exercise for our physical and mental well-being.

So, what could be a better time and place for us to discover more about where we live, record our experiences and share them with other Ouse Valley enthusiasts. In this way we can all can broaden our knowledge of the gifts our Valley has to offer – our Landscape for Life.

Sights and Sounds is for you. Send us brief descriptions of what you see, what you hear and the scenes and scenery you discover. It doesn’t have to be a momentous event, like an Osprey diving into the river and flying off with a huge fish. It can be as simple as a Leaf-cutter Bee buzzing by with a tiny circle of green leaf between its legs, or the sudden sight of a meadow full of buttercups, or a Mute Swan showing off her new family. Photographs and recordings too would be welcome. Have you heard a Cuckoo yet? You may be on a walk, on a bike or in a canoe, or merely looking out the window - if it happened in the the Ouse Valley somewhere we want to know about it. Send you contributions to us via the website. We’ll look forward to posting them to grow into a fascinating journey through the Ouse Valley year. We’d love to hear from your children too.

Here’s a few to start you off. The first one about a flooded meadow was compiled over the winter months. Others can be much shorter and single observations. These just happen to be about birds. Tell us about flowers, insects, trees and scenery too. In fact anything else you see or hear. Anything goes. Let’s share our sights and sounds of the Great Ouse Valley!

Index  For your convenience we have indexed topics/species/places covered in Sights and Sounds. Click on an Index entry to find the item. The selected item will appear at the top of the page.



St Ives, November - March 2020

When our river rises at this time of year and the Hemingford flood meadow fills, as it is supposed to do, it is fascinating to see the winter birds the new lake attracts. Here are notes of those spotted as the level rose and fell at least four times this year. (The photographs by Nigel Sprowell were not all taken on the meadow.)

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4 5 6
 7 8 9 10


  1. The Little Egret is the most reliable regular. Always solo he crouches and probes the margins of the lake as it grows and shrinks. Pure white and elegant he is sometimes missed in the hundreds of gulls also feeding.
  1. In contrast, his big brother the Great Egret is less frequent but equally striking and able to wade deeper. Also solitary. The presence of egrets is evidence of global warming (if we need any more!) as they spread north from their Mediterranean range.
  1. This year Wigeon, pretty ducks with a yellow Mohican stripe, have formed large flocks widely scattered over the meadow lake in early morning. Constantly on the move they appear fidgety and the first jogger of the day sets them off.
  1. There is a local single pair of Egyptian Geese sometimes seen on the river. Another bird with interesting head plumage, sunglasses always come to mind! They always seem to be about important urgent business.
  1. The black bottom of the Gadwall is a giveaway and it has been seen just once this winter in small numbers. In close-up the plumage is elegant grey.
  1. Tufted Duck in contrast are plain black and white and seen here are often a sign the surrounding lakes are frozen.
  1. The male Pintail on the other hand is positively stunning. Long and white neck and chestnut head pick him out easily, along with his pin tail of course. Only one pair sighted this year.
  1. Last of the ducks is the one with the oversized bill, the Shoveler. Fascinating to watch, a small flock of seven sieved through the water with back and forth bills, seemingly keen to make the most of their short stay.
  1. Now the waders. A wonderful flock of magnificent Black-tailed Godwits graced the meadow just once. They busily probed the soggy grass with impressive bills while moving elegantly up and down on stilted legs. A joy to watch.
  1. And then a big flock of the more dumpy Dunlin dropped in briefly, more usually a shore bird but welcome in St Ives. A flock turning together in flight flashes dark and then white as the white underwings catch the light. Thrilling!

So, how to see this wonderful array of (mostly) winter visitors spending time with us? There are two viewing points. One is Floods Tavern patio from which you can scan most of the St Ives end of Hemingford Meadow and keep your feet dry! You’ll need at least 10x50 binoculars or better still a scope. Or, if you can venture through the Dolphin Hotel passage in wellies, you can stand in the flood for your views! Happy spotting.

Trustee Ian Jackson



Wildlife Trust Godmanchester Nature Reserve, April 2020

NightingalePhotgraph by Nigel Sprowell (different occasion)

An uncommon visitor to this reserve, a Nightingale’s pure liquid song poured forth in the third week of April. It stopped me in my tracks as the bird delivered its soaring pin and low jug notes in a cascade from deep within a thicket, the performer too shy to be seen. For a few brief moments time was suspended and my mind was stilled. What a privilege to hear, so close to home. I was pleased that my phone recorded it so well. Listen to it here:


Trustee Phil Rothwell



The river, St Ives, May 2020

CormorantsPhotograher unknown (different occasion)

Downstream they came, three abreast. Fearsome ‘reptilian’ birds looking as if they meant business. And they sure did. Together they presented a perfect synchronized dive, disappearing without a ripple for a few long seconds. Up they bobbed close to one another with one triumphant beak in the act of swallowing a fish. I hadn’t seen this before. I imagined them underwater working as a team and corralling fish to restrict their escape. Clever stuff.

Trustee Ian Jackson



The Trout Stream, Hemingford Grey, 7 May 2020

The Trout Stream is narrow, fast flowing and twists through the meadows from the weir opposite the regatta meadow. In places sharp bends reveal crumbly cliffs, ideal for tunnels. Access by small boat (no engine) allows quiet observation from a respectful distance at anchor with binoculars – and a lot of patience. These are brief notes from an hour-and-a-half’s viewing.

Kingfisher 1 Kingfisher 2

Photograhs by Nigel Sprowell (different occasion)

‘The bird came in low and fast (as they always do) like an arrow from far right. It disappeared into the foliage of the large collapsing willow opposite the hole. After a few seconds it reappeared and alighted just below the hole and then, in a flash, it was in. This cautious approach was a recurring theme. The hole’s exact location is not to be revealed. After a varying amount of time, the bird would reappear, splash down into the stream, immediately arise, dip down again and then fly off immediately up upstream. What was happening? I checked the book. The kingfisher nesting chamber is a tight smelly place. Feeding birds need to cleanse themselves after delivering food.’

[Reference: Kingfisher Charlie Hamilton James, Evans Mitchell Books 2009]

Trustee Ian Jackson



Holt Island Nature Reserve, 10 May 2020

I sat on The Waits and listened to the rolling skirl of the recently arrived Sedge Warbler’s song just opposite me across the backwater in a patch of Phragmites reed. Suddenly the bird darted into fleeting view. I raised my camera. These chances are rare. The bird’s attention was suddenly attracted to a large spider. I hit the motor drive as a sudden quick stab sealed the spider’s fate. I was very pleased with the results. Such a beautiful summer warbler feeding here after an epic journey of 6,000 miles. It is so good to have it back in the Great Ouse Valley.

Photographs by Nigel Sprowell

Nigel Sprowell



The Waits, St Ives, 10 May 2020

Where has she been? This is the question we have been asking ourselves for the past few weeks. And now? Deja-vu! Last year ‘our’ swan gave pleasure to many whilst nesting on the Island, on The Waits side, producing a family of eight cygnets, all of which eventually reached adulthood being a remarkable achievement.

Well, she was clearly hiding nearby - maybe in isolation -- and in the last few days she proudly presented another batch of eight cygnets to her admirers at The Waits. We wish them all well and let us hope they are as successful as last year - and learn to practice social distancing!

Photographs by Nigel Sprowell

 Nigel Sprowell



St Ives, 14 May 2020

I pulled the kitchen curtain at 5.40 am to catch a glimpse of a dumpy, chestnut brown shape running along the Meadow path alongside the river from the left. By the time it was opposite the reed bed on Holt Island Nature Reserve I had realised what it was. The Muntjac deer slipped into the river by one of the fishing platforms without any hesitation and swum strongly across. It scrambled ashore to disappear into the reeds and I watched the waving reed tops mark its passage inland as it pushed its way through. I hoped the Reed and Sedge Warblers nests were not too disturbed!

Muntjac Deer

Photogaph by Nigel Sprowell (different occasion)

We have always had a small family of these deer on the reserve. It looks like we now might have a new arrival. Their fondness for fresh green shoots does not endear them to gardeners of riverside properties but on the island they can munch away to their heart’s content. Visitors and especially children are thrilled by the odd sighting, usually in the evening, and they do look rather charming. Our damp riverside habitats suit them well and I understand they have spread through East Anglia from a few escapes at Woburn Abbey.

Check out Holt Island Nature Reserve at

Ian Jackson



Back garden, St Ives, 21 May 2020

Another very warm day, warm enough to barbecue a sausage for supper. The slight breeze had died completely until the air was perfectly still. I pushed back my plate, reached for the wine and then was distracted by movement over the pergola. Specks catching the low sunlight were moving up and down fast and waltzing around each other. Squinting revealed long graceful tails - mayflies! A quick count - about twenty. I watched for some minutes as they rose and fell and remembered the story. This was their one day of joy. They had spent most of their life underwater as nymphs and had just hatched to live just long enough to mate after the courtship dance. If I was a fly fisherman I would have reached for my tackle box.

Wine forgotten I was mesmerised. Then, disaster! A Black-headed Gull floated into view at low level, banked suddenly and did a fly past. In a flash it was gone. And so were a few of the flies. Before I had to time to realise what had happened it came back. And then again. Within a very few minutes my dancing Queens were no more.


Illustration from MDWFP Museum of Natural Science

Trustee: Ian Jackson



Back garden, St Ives, 28 May 2020

It’s amazing what you can see right under your nose if you take the trouble to look. Especially when you are in confinement with all this lovely weather. In fact, I recommend a sit down with a cuppa outside at least once a day to just gaze around. This time my eye was caught by a leaf pattern I did not recognize. I remembered it as a wisteria but now I wasn’t so sure.

Chewed leaves Leaf-cutter bee

Photographs © Ian Jackson (left) and Warren Photographic (right)

Each leaf had a semi-circle missing, sometimes two. Was it some weird disease? I recalled the same thing happening last year but on a rose. Half-way through my cuppa the culprit was revealed. An insect took off with something held between its legs, a bit like a miniature rolled up carpet – a Leaf-cutter Bee! A quick bit of research explained everything. We have seven Megachile species that do this. They are all solitary and it is the female that neatly snips the leaf semi-circles and takes them back to the nest to construct a cell. Each cell contains an egg and a store of food (nectar and pollen) and is capped. The larva that hatches then has a pretty good start. The best news is that although the bee favours fresh young leaves the plants are not harmed – and that’s from the RHS!

Trustee Ian Jackson




If you have enjoyed browsing through the wealth of Sights and Sounds presented here and you have become more appreciative of the nature of our Great Ouse Valley and all it has to offer, you might like to know more about the work of the Trust. We are a registered Charity with volunteer Trustees committed to promote, protect and enhance our wonderful Ouse Valley. Send us a message via this site and we will record your interest in order to contact you when our Friends group is set up. We are looking forward to creating a network of Ouse Valley enthusiasts who share our aims. You have our word we will never use your details for any other purpose.

The Trustees, May 2020