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

Harried for a harrier

Hen harrier, with the white tail-band showing why it’s a ‘ringtail’. Photo by Mick Coquhoun

You might think that bird-watching is a gentle pursuit with little chance for trouble. It ain’t always so.

I’d heard that there were a couple of hen harriers not too far from here, so just before Christmas I went to look for them. Hen harriers are Britain’s most endangered bird of prey, having nearly been wiped out by gamekeepers keen to preserve grouse and pheasant stocks.

With the help of a couple of other birders I had distant views – barely enough for me to be sure what I was looking at. Thus when the weather was good I decided to have another look. I went with Alfie from Trinity, and bumped into Mick Colquhoun, a wildlife photographer who’s bittern image I’d extolled a few posts ago.

We crossed a style at the edge of the road and skirted round a ploughed field. As we walked we caught sight of a large bird of prey, and a quick check with binoculars revealed it as a ringtail hen harrier. We were delighted, and over the next ten minutes had some spectacular views: Mick took some great photos, one of which is on the right.

After a while we tryed to get closer still, but were interruped by a large 4×4 being driven up. An irate bloke got out – whether he was the landowner or gamekeeper, we don’t know – and immediately theatened to confiscate our equipment as we’d wandered off the public right of way. It’s possible that he thought we were poachers: we’d seen a couple of fallow deer nearby, and fieldsports are widespread here.

Either way we had to slink off. We relayed the story to a couple of the birding experts here… and we got a rap over the knuckles for endangering the delicate relationships between landowners and the birding community!

Slimbridge on New Year’s morning was a much more relaxed affair. There was an early morning bird walk – an ideal time to go around the site as there are thousands of birds on the reserve at the moment. I then went back the next day, as Dave Doughty and John Linney also wanted to go while the weather was good. Below are a few photos from it.

Bewick’s swans, which breed in Siberia, and a tufted duck just up from a dive.

A wigeon

The birds can be quite easily spooked into flight, especially if there are peregrines or buzzards flying over. Click to enlarge.