Dark inquisitive eyes peered at us from the ripples lashing a river bank as the mini cruise bursting with birdwatchers headed out towards the Wash.
We had been promised seals, and the curious pup that had popped up in the River Witham to watch us go by was a sign of things to come.
The South Lincolnshire branch of the RSPB hold several boat trips on the Boston Belle each year, and the ones run in October are amongst the most popular due to the number of migratory birds that can be spotted resting on the wetlands on their way to warmer climes.
But, late autumn is also the time hundreds of common seals come ashore to have their pups, causing thousands of spectators to flock to Donna Nook and great excitement for boat trippers along the coastal rivers.
“We can expect to see at least 50 different species of birds,” promised Chris Andrews of the RSPB reserve at Frampton Marsh, our commentator for the day, who just minutes later pointed out a group seals basking in the autumn sunshine on the mudflats of the River Welland.
This was the 11th trip on the local RSPB branch calendar this year, each one attracting about 45 people. The Boston Belle is one of two boats owned by Boston Waterways Ltd, who run mini cruises for groups and parties from the Marina.
For trip organiser and RSPB volunteer Norman Adcock, this trip was to be a particularly memorable - with just one more to organise before handing over the responsibilty after seven years.
“People come from about a 60-mile radius to go on these trips because of the variety of birds the Wash attracts. The record while I’ve been doing it is 84 different species but we had 83 on the first boat out which was unbelievable.
“Trips mainly attract keen bird watchers, but some people just come for the ride and to meet interesting people.”
I definitely was among the latter - my own attempts to feed birds in the garden resulting in one very fat rat scampering up the fence to get on the seed tray and a squirrel launching itself onto it, only to make it swing like a hammock and land in a nearby stream. That was pretty funny, though.
A delicious aroma of bacon from the galley was beginning to fill the air of the lower deck.
Tony Bowness, of Alford, was one of the first customers. “I’ve been on this trip four or five times over the years,” he said. “I just enjoy the outing and, of course, the bacon butties - and we also get to see some birds.”
Six miles along the River Witham we could see the opening to the Wash - with Skegness on the horizon to the left and Hunstanton to the right.
Skipper for the day, Rodney Bowles, has been cruising the waterways for 26 years following a career change from farming when markets moved away from ‘local’ to dealing with produce merchants.
“We mainly do organised trips for groups and have just expanded with a second boat, the Prince George, which we are hoping to run to Lincoln. The RSPB trips are always fun though. Every trip is different because of the different people on board and the changing seasons - when it’s warm everyone is on deck, and if it rains they are all in here wanting butties.”
Helping him in the galley was Pete Westwell, who first went on the boat when he was five years old, and is now helping the business grow. Pete said: “I first got involved because my nan and grandad lived along the riverbank and I started helping out in school holidays and weekends.
“Now it’s become a lifestyle and I love it.”
As the boat turned out in the Wash towards the mouth of the River Welland, we passed a test bed built when there were plans to run ferries from Skegness to Hunstanton. “Now you’ll see it used by birds, especially a lot of terns and gulls,” said Chris, never missing the opportunity to add some extra interesting facts into the commentary.
In spite of the strong SSW winds making the sea choppy, the reflection from the clear skies made the water look almost blue and there was no evidence of the plastic that has created a worldwide crisis, with 600 million tonnes of it pumped in every year.
“It is there, though. At low tide you’ll see it piled up along the riverbanks,” said Pete. “We’ve seen it in the fishing nets too. That’s what’s good about trips like this - they make people appreciate nature and want to look after the ocean.”
The two RSPB bird spotters certainly did an excellent job for the enthusiasts on board.
“Stilt sandpiper at two o’clock,” said Chris. “Long-billed dowitcher at nine o’clock, red-necked phalarope at 10 o’clock.”
More than 60 species were identified on the trip, providing plenty of opportunities to keep the keen photographers happy - like Jan Croft of Newton Linford, who was there with a camera club from Leicestershire.
As we headed back, the Boston Belle waited patiently for the lockgate to open because of a late tide caused by the strong winds. There was just enough time for Jan to see if she could capture a shot of the peregrine we had been told had been nesting on top of the Stump.
She said: “The camera club put this trip on for us as part of our exploring outdoors projects and we’ve really enjoyed it. I’m hoping to have some good shots of the birds, although what I thought was a peregrine seems to be a gull.”
There is one more RSPB trip from Boston Marina this year - on Tuesday October 16.
To book call the South Holland centre on 01775 764777.
Anderby Marsh, Anderby Road, Chapel St Leonards, PE24 5XH
The Marsh will be transformed over time into a wildlife haven of traditional coastal grazing marsh and reedbed
Donna Nook, Marsh Lane, Donna Nook, Louth, LN11 7PD
Extensive dunes and shore between North Somercotes and Saltfleet.
RSPB Frampton Marsh, Nearest postcode PE20 1AY
Frampton Marsh is part of the most mature saltmarsh in the Wash and is exceptionally rich in plants, birds and invertebrates.
Gibraltar Point, Gibraltar Road, Skegness, PE24 4SU
Sandy, muddy seashores, sand-dunes, salt marshes and fresh water habitats on the Lincolnshire coast.
North Sea Observatory, Chapel Point, Chapel St Leonards, PE24 5XA
The purpose-built marine observatory at Chapel Point, Chapel St Leonards, offers views of the dunes and sea and the animals that call them home.
RSPB Frieston Shore, Freiston, Boston PE22 0LY
Explore the wilderness of The Wash, the UK’s most important estuary for wildlife, where you can get excellent views of large groups of waders on the salt water
For RSPB enquiries, call 07531495521.