Spiralling around at Slimbridge

When Jen and I went with my mother to Slimbridge, I wasn’t expecting a great afternoon of photography. Perhaps it is better to have low expectations! – in fact, the weather turned out to be ideal (unlike the rather showery forecast), and the wildlife was unusually co-operative. It started with some rather showy pintails – a rather classy and elegant duck – which were close to the hides on the Rushy Pen.

Pintail looking elegant at Slimbridge

We then went along the walkway to the Holden Tower, stopping off at the hides along the way. The showpiece hides at Slimbridge are, unfortunately, known for being distant from the birds – but this was not the case for those along the walkway which were adjacent to a couple of flooded fields. While in one, a Little Grebe swam into view just below where we were sat. These birds are often elusive, heard more readily than seen – for example, the ones on Shapwick Heath tend to lurk in the reedbeds, But this one, having no reedbeds to skulk in, was very showy.

This Little Grebe swam into view just below us and stationed itself there for a while.

Little Grebe at Slimbridge

Eventually the Little Grebe swam further out into the floodwater where it proceeded to dive frequently. Meanwhile a couple of shovelers were spiralling around each other. I ignored this strange behaviour until I realised that I was missing something really interesting. This is a deliberate feeding strategy, designed to stir up debris at the bottom to near the surface of the water, which they could then sift for food. In the photos below, notice the wake from the shovelers which spirals outward from them as they rotate around each other.

Spiralling shovelers at Slimbridge

Spiralling shovelers at Slimbridge

The one slight frustration was a group of redshanks and wigeons, which were beautifully arranged, and ideally illuminated by the cloudy sun – but they wouldn’t smile for the camera when I wanted them to!

Smile,please? Redshanks and wigeons being unco-operative

A couple of winter birding trips

Black redstart (female) at Brean Down cove

A few days ago, I took a quick trip to Brean Down cove, to look for a female black redstart that is wintering there. For a while I thought that I was going to miss out, but then she suddenly appeared, very close by. In the normal course I’d have been very satisfied with the photos I took at that point.

I decided to explore some of the rest of the cove and happened to notice a grey heron looking alert on a rock islet on the edge of the shore, so I spent a few minutes trying to capture the scene.

Heron at Brean Down Cove

On my way back I looked for the redstart again in a rather vague and half-hearted way – but then she suddenly appeared, on the end of a nearby branch that had been washed up, even closer than before. I’ve ended up concluding that she was checking me out! I was particularly delighted because this is definitely one of the best photos I’ve taken of a small bird.

Female black redstart at Brean Down cove

On my day off, Jen and I went up to Slimbridge. We knew it would be cold, but I’d forgotten what it was like to have an icy blast blowing in off the Severn estuary!

Many of the Bewick’s swans have arrived for the winter: they are much smaller than our native mute swans, with yellow-and-black bills rather than orange-and-black. They’ve had an astonishing journey to get here, as they breed on the arctic tundra of northern Siberia. Sadly they are declining in numbers all across Europe: 29,000 in 1995, dropping to 18,000 in 2010; there are far fewer at Slimbridge now than there were ten years ago. It’s not hard to work out one of the biggest causes of the decline: of those that are in the UK, 40% carry gunshot. (Their story on the WWT site here.)

Bewicks swans at Slimbridge

We saw several Bewick’s swans on the Rushy pen, where there was also a scarce wader – a Little Stint, which is indeed very diminutive.

Little stint at Slimbridge

Birding habits – new and old

View of the Camp Lane Pools, Grimley

Great White Egret at Grimley

About four miles from where I live is an important wetland site which is attracting some rather impressive birds. This is the Camp Lane Pools at Grimley, and even while I’ve been going there’s been a Great White Egret, which stayed for a few weeks. Being so close I’ve begun to drop in there on a regular basis, adopting it as my local patch.

Wetland habitats are unusual in the Midlands, and within the county this one is second only to Upton Warren. In the last year or so highlights have included grey plover, curlew sandpiper, little stint and a barred warbler. An impressive number of grebes have bred there, both great crested and little (which would be my nomination for Britain’s most under-rated bird).

There are several other pools between here and Holt which also attract notable birds, and with the ongoing gravel extraction by Tarmac nearby there is likely to be the development of more. With some strategic management it could become a very important area for bird life, but it does need some visionary thinking: at present the Camp Lane Pools site is up for sale, and local birders are understandably anxious about what may happen in the near future.

Three heron species at Grimley: great white egret, grey heron and little egret

Green sandpiper on the Rushy at Slimbridge

On Monday (a day off) I went down to Slimbridge, which is attracting a large number of birds at the moment. As it happened many of the headline birds were only viewable from the distance, but I had a wonderfully close view of a green sandpiper on the Rushy Pen. It was wading up and down a narrow channel just in front of the hide: being able to see it clearly even without binoculars helped me to appreciate how tiny it is.

I ended the day by going down to the Holden Tower, which seemed like a futile visit as the birds were so distant. However, a couple of others who were in the hide suddenly started taking an excessive interest in one of the window frames. They beckoned me over – and there was a brown long-eared bat, trying to roost in the corner. It didn’t seem to appreciate the attention as it tried to bury itself further into the corner, but as the wood was unyielding it adopted a more comfortable position.

Brown long-eared bat at Slimbridge

The mystique of bitterns

On Monday morning about a dozen people were crowded into the corner of the Zeiss Hide at Slimbridge, staring at a reedbed. Staring and waiting. I arrived at 9.45 but one guy had arrived at 8.00, and was still waiting and staring.

Bitterns do this to birders.

On the previous Friday morning I’d arrived, buoyantly optimistic, because two bitterns had been seen regularly for several consecutive days from the Zeiss Hide, and had been ‘showing well’. Unfortunately this was the day they’d decided to fly off down the channel ‘towards the dead tree near the Kingfisher Hide’. So I went there and started what was, on this occasion, largely a solitary vigil.

An hour later I happened to glance back down the channel as a bittern flew from one reedbed to another. So I moved down the path to a closer spot. A few minutes later I glanced around elsewhere, then looked back at the reedbed, just as the bittern had turned back into the reedbed. Doh! Never mind, I thought, it’ll re-emerge. Two hours of waiting later, it hadn’t.

Looking at the Gloster Birder website over the weekend I discovered that they’d flown back towards the Zeiss Hide, so as I had the time I went down again. There’s something re-assuring about doing a reedbed vigil with a dozen others bitten by the bittern bug [thanks for that one, Dufty!]… there’s a common bond between those of us who think this is a constructive way to spend time.

At 11:30 one of the group – the guy who’d waited since 8am – suddenly said “it’s just over there” and pointed to a small island of reeds a little further away. We crowded round the two nearest windows, as a bittern emerged, stepping purposefully, almost delicately, out from the reeds and surveyed the scene. Camera shutters clicked. A few seconds later it lifted off, flew to the nearer reeds and landed. For a short while it was just visible in its characteristic ‘bitterning’ pose – neck and beak pointing skywards to merge in with the surrounding reeds, and then it disappeared.

I was tempted to leave, satisfied, but decided to stay on, waiting, hoping for a longer sighting. Forty minutes later someone else spotted a bittern standing in a clearing in the reeds. For about twenty minutes it waited, surveying the reeds for prey – evidently without success – but there was plenty of time for many photographs to be taken – and even I got some halfway decent shots!

Bittern from the Zeiss Hide at Slimbridge – showing why its plumage is ideal for disappearing into reedbeds

I returned after this, well pleased with what I’d seen. Apparently the next day it showed even better, as this outstanding image by Mick Colquhoun shows.

The return of the bittern as a breeding species to Britain, after it had become extinct in these islands, is one of the major triumphs of bird conservation here, along with the avocet. It’s one of a number of large, heron-like birds that are making a comeback, like the egrets, the spoonbills and regular visitors like the glossy ibis. However, the others are quite showy birds, and have none of the determined elusiveness of the bittern. I was surprised to find that, despite its rarity in the UK (possibly about 200 wintering, and a small handful breeding) it is globally not endangered – there are about 200,000 adult birds. But I suspect that few, if any, outside Britain have the drawing capacity that these two at Slimbridge now have.

In between the bittern trips, I went with a group from Trinity for a hike in the Brecon Beacons. It was a most enjoyable day of tough walking and great conversation. Some of the guys had been part of the Three Peaks challenge in June (very envious of their doing this!), so there’s a desire to keep up the walking.

The hikers from Trinity doing the Brecon Beacons: Cribyn and Pen-y-fan in the background

Tripping over snails, and gazing at godwits

I did not think that it was possible to get excited about snails. Nevertheless, I managed it twice in the last couple of weeks. I’d known that Leckhampton Hill is a good habitat for the rare Roman snails, but despite going there many times over the years, I had never seen one. Then one evening a fortnight ago I stumbled across one – almost literally! – and a week later saw a second.

Roman snails on Leckhampton Hill

As snails go, these are huge! – much bigger than the small garden snails we’re all familiar with. They are a protected species throughout the EU, largely because there are some who regard them as a gastronomic delicacy.

Spoonbill on the South Lake at Slimbridge

I went to Slimbridge last week and saw the spoonbill which has been hanging around for about three weeks. Yet what continued to impress me even more was the large flock of about two hundred black-tailed godwits, which were looking particularly spectacular in bright sun-light with their brick-red plumage. They are large waders (though not as big as the spoonbill) with long, straight bills for probing the soft mud of lake and river margins. I’ve seen them elsewhere before but in far smaller numbers, and generally not in breeding plumage.  This time I found a hide from which I could get much better photos of them.

Black-tailed godwits at Slimbridge

What puzzled me was that so many have been residing, in the breeding season, without any young being around. I’ve since learned that non-breeding adults tend to gather in large flocks – hence the hundred or so earlier in the month – and that these are then joined by other adults once their young have fledged, prior to their autumn migration. They’ll winter in places like the floodplains of Lake Chad, where they flock in huge numbers. Nevertheless, their status as a species is ‘near threatened’ because of a decline in global population of about a quarter in twenty years, mainly because of threats to their wetland habitats.

July 20: It appears I’ve oversimplified things here… if you’re interested, check out this page.


Oxeye daisies on Leckhampton Hill

One of the delights of nature is its constant capacity to surprise – even with the apparently ordinary. I was walking on the top of Leckhampton Hill earlier this week when I saw a field covered in white flowers. I thought it must be something similar to oilseed rape, until I got closer and discovered that the flower was the oxeye daisy. I’ve never seen it in such profusion.

A couple of days later I went down to Slimbridge to see a red-necked phalarope, a rare wader that in the UK breeds only in the Shetlands. A female had dropped in – and it’s a spectacular bird to see. Nevertheless, at least as impressive were the massed ranks of over a hundred black-tailed godwits elsewhere on the reserve. Seeing them arrayed as they were, you could imagine you were somewhere tropical… (I’d encourage you to click to enlarge as the image below doesn’t really do them justice)

Black-tailed godwits at Slimbridge (click to enlarge)

Later in the week I had an abortive wild-duck chase down to Chew Valley Lake, and ended up sheltering in a bird hide while it poured with rain for the best part of two hours. Nevertheless on the way back I came across two roe deer and a hare – each of them magnificent sights in their own right.

Roe deer at Chew Valley

Hare at Chew Valley

Mice, feathers and spicy food

Harvest mouse at Slimbridge

Earlier this week I went to Slimbridge with Jenny; despite the profusion of birds, both captive and wild, the undoubted star of the show was this harvest mouse. It’s part of the “Back from the brink” exhibit, focussing mainly on small mammals as well as water voles and beavers. Apart from the much larger otters, it was only the harvest mice which were active – and they were running all over their cage. This character spent a lot of time preening -and posed briefly before scuttling off.

Garganey, freshly arrived from West Africa

I missed out on a lesser scaup, reported to be a rare vagrant from the USA. To my surprise I then saw a fair number of lesser scaups amongst the captive birds, which did just make me wonder whether the one alleged to have flown across the Atlantic might actually be an escape from a hundred yards away… Still, we did get to see a garganey, newly arrived having migrated from West Africa.

Matt & Jo

It’s been a very pleasant few days – with a couple of very enjoyable evening meals to crown the week! Matt’s birthday meal was on Saturday night, so a bunch of us enjoyed a curry to celebrate with him, while on the previous evening John Linney arranged for a group of us to go to an all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet. The older I get, the more I value and appreciate genuine friendships. Folks, you enrich my life!

At “The Real China” with John, Jesse, Tracey, Neil, Dave and Jimmy.