On Tuesday we made the trip across the border to the WWT’s flagship Slimbridge reserve. After driving through biblical hail storms it was a welcome relief to arrive in glorious sunshine, accompanied of course by the usual drop in temperature that seems to plague every one of our visits there. We clearly weren’t the only ones hoping to make the most of the last days holiday as despite arriving well before opening time there was already a queue forming at the entrance doors. We kitted ourselves out and joined what turned into a short but productive wait, picking out a couple of Redpoll in nearby shrubs and a trio of overflying Bewicks Swans as we did so.
Once inside we had an hour or so to spend exploring before my parents arrived to join us for the day. For me there was only one clear target that I had in mind; a female Lesser Scaup who had given us the slip on the same date last year and which had recently returned to the exact same pool. To the delight of my chilled fingers the hide overlooking said pool is heated and had already attracted quite a few birders, a couple of which clearly had the same quarry in mind as ourselves. After a few minutes of scanning through the very similar looking Tufted Ducks we both spotted a likely looking candidate at the same time, though a turn of the head quickly revealed a prominent head tuft that emphatically ruled it out of the reckoning. Fortunately a warden chose that moment to pop his head in and mention that the Lesser Scaup had been seen a little further into the reserve, so off we went before it had chance to relocate. The view that greeted us was the one above; green grass, crystal clear blue skies and thousands upon thousands of feeding birds. In the foreground more Tufted Ducks as well as several Pochards were busy feeding around a sleeping bird that after a great deal of interrogation turned out to be the Lesser Scaup herself (I freely admit to being a bit of a novice when it comes to the identification of female Scaup). Although her beak was hidden under her wing there was just enough on show to allow the white patch around it to be seen, which when combined with the lack of tuft and brown colouration sealed the deal for us. It may have taken exactly twelve months but we finally had our bird.
By now my parents had arrived and during the brief time that we stepped out of the hide to meet them the Scaup did another of its great disappearing acts. Equally annoying was the fact that the White Fronted Geese which had been feeding on the grass had also debunked. Fortunately we relocated them from the Holden Tower along with a hundred of so Barnacle Geese and the resident Greylags. Of all the Geese species White Fronted have always tried to evade me with only sporadic sightings across the years I’ve been in the hobby, which is such a shame as they are cracking birds. To my surprise it turned out to be a new life tick for my Dad, and we almost manged to add a Greenland White Fronted Goose as well but I just couldn’t decide after looking at one particularly streaky individual for a while. From the same vantage point we had commanding views over the huge gatherings of Golden Plover, Dunlin and Lapwing which were being particularly mobile during the morning hours. Each time the massive flocks took to the air we scanned around for a predator but drew a blank, the only candidate being a Peregrine Falcon who seemed happy to watch the day go by from its perch on a sand bank in the middle of the River Severn.
Away from the grazing fields the formal pools that hold the reserves captive collection of world wildfowl were also brimming with wild birds that were taking advantage of the easy supply of food. Shelducks in particular were present in large numbers and were filling the air with their distinctive whistling call.
Black Headed Gulls were similarly making the most of visitors generosity, with each handful of thrown seed resulting in a riot of noise and flapping wings. Whilst awaiting their next free meal the gulls have become so tame that it’s hard not to get in close for some nice portraits.
Similarly tame are the Wood Pigeons which I’m sure look plumper than those we get locally. Perhaps the symptoms of an easy life? Whatever the cause of their expanding waistlines it seemed like every post or tree had at least one perched upon it, but a few couldn’t even be bothered with that and were just sat at random on the ground. Believe me when I say the onus is definitely on the humans to walk around them, not the other way around.
The day delivered several other quality birds throughout including a distant Ruff, male and female Reed Buntings and an always welcome male Pheasant. We did spend twenty minutes or so waiting for the appearance of a Bittern but decided not to wait any longer due to the limited number of daylight hours we had available but mainly because of the bitingly cold wind that was blasting through the hide. Our effort was not in vain however as we were treated to a Water Rail running in and out of cover along a flooded ditch. All in all a very good start to 2012.