Having endured yet another week of downpours we thought what the hell, why not go and enjoy some English rain for a change. Actually our reasons for crossing the border on Saturday were slightly better thought through than that with reports of thousands upon thousands of wintering wildfowl coming out of Slimbridge. In fact the words ‘perfect conditions’ had been heard more than once and with our fledgling year list yet to make it to triple figures, that was an offer just too good to resist. So it was I found myself rising earlier than I have done all year (admittedly only nine days worth) to ensure that we were at the entrance come opening time. Despite torrential rain for much of the drive we did just that and arrived not only in the dry but also with a hint of brightness in the sky. Of course this is coming from someone who can barely remember what a clear sky looks like so in reality that hint was nothing more than a slightly less dark section of cloud. But I digress. Passing through the entrance gates at WWT’s flagship reserve is always a moment I savour, both in terms of expectation at what lies ahead and from memories formed over the past thirty years worth of visits. Though facilities and buildings may have changed the board walk stretching out across Swan Lake remains virtually unaltered and it is always the first place to which I head. Mute Swans, Tufted Ducks, Greylag Geese and other common species are all but guaranteed, not forgetting of course Black Headed Gulls and Feral Pigeons after an easy meal. Despite having numerous photos of them all the lure always proves too great to resist, particularly on this occasion when there was a very real fear that these would be my only pictures of the day with conditions forecast to deteriorate later on.
Also present were a quintet of Bewick’s Swans which set us up rather nicely for our next stop at the Rushy. The hides there offer probably the best place in the country to get up close to Pintail and this day was to prove no different. Snoozing on the nearest bank were at least six of these intricately patterned birds, most tucked up tight but a couple awake enough to show off those fantastic tail plumes to full effect. They weren’t alone either with at least another hundred plus spread out across the entire area with similar numbers of Teal, Pochard and Tufted Duck also present. Then there were the Bewick’s for which Slimbridge is world famous, twenty of them, which on past experience is significantly lower than one might expect given the time of year. As with so many other wetland species habitat loss and persecution are partly to blame but chief culprit at the moment has been our mild winter. Putting it bluntly there just hasn’t been enough of an incentive for these birds to move any further South than the Netherlands. Only in the last few days has that started to change as colder weather finally starts to push its way into the rest of Europe so hopes are high that numbers should continue to build over the coming weeks. If they do we might just have to make a return visit.
Amongst the gathered masses there were also a couple of rarer birds present, the first being a male Pochard containing more than a hint of Ferruginous Duck. To be honest I doubt we’d have spotted it on our own but once pointed out its distinctive plumage including dark upper body and yellow eyes was hard to miss. Further back two female Scaup woke up just long enough for a brief swim though at distance a record shot was all I could manage.
The Tack piece was our next stop and here we got our first real impression of the sheer number of birds currently on site. Thousands of Teal, Wigeon and Lapwing were feeding across flooded grassland for as far as the eye could see, intermingled with hundreds of Dunlin (the most I’ve seen in one place for a very long time) and Black-tailed Godwits, not to mention Shoveller, Redshank and even our first sighting of one of the local Common Cranes. More on those later. Then there were the geese, Canada, Greylag and best of all White-fronted, at least 125 of the latter off in the far distance. I probably should have taken a general photo or two to show the sheer abundance of life but in truth I was so enthralled by proceedings that the thought never even crossed my mind.
Thankfully I was a bit more on the ball at Willow Hide where a surprise appearance by the sun seemed to bring out all manner of species to the feeders there. Bullfinch, Goldcrest, Long-tailed Tit, Woodpigeon and even a very showy Cetti’s Warbler all popped up in quick succession whilst in the background a male Mallard dabbled away.
Casting my eyes further through the undergrowth revealed a couple of unexpected shapes atop the large bank which borders Holden Tower. Blimey, it was only a pair of Common Cranes! I dashed down the path just in time to see them perfectly set against the horizon, a backdrop of thousands upon thousands of Golden Plovers whirling through the air lending the scene just that little bit extra. The Cranes were only present for a moment or two before strutting off along the bank but a quick relocation into the tower itself soon re-established contact. Now stood closer together they threw their heads back and uttered a series of loud calls, not unlike that of a Goose to my surprise but far, far louder.
Territory presumably marked they took flight out onto the estuary where they happily fed for the next twenty minutes or so. Visibility was rapidly deteriorating due to an incoming storm but even so they made for an imposing sight, dwarfing even the Bewick’s which were feeding nearby. We’re just not used to seeing wildlife quite that big in this country.
It says something for the imposing nature of a Crane that only once they’d moved off did I even turn my attention to the other birds present which included at least 270 Barnacle Geese and thousands more Lapwings, not forgetting of course a pair of Ruddy Shelducks whose provenance sits decidedly at the dodgy end of what most would class as truly wild. They did look rather nice though. Keeping the lot on their toes were a pair of Buzzards who seemed to delight in soaring along the hedgerows, spreading panic as they went, but alas we didn’t get to follow up on a shout for Peregrine due to a rather noisy and rude coach party which had taken up residence in the hide. Sometimes excuse me seems to be the hardest two words in the English language.
Escaping to quieter quarters we found ourselves over at the Zeiss Hide where although we dipped on a Grey Phalarope we did spot five Snipe roosting in the reeds. In fact that may have been all we’d seen if a heavy downpour hadn’t kept us under cover for another quarter of an hour or so, time enough for me to pick out a Water Rail skulking through thick vegetation. I had my fingers crossed that it might reveal a little more of itself but instead it melted away once more.
In worsening conditions there was just time to enjoy the spectacle of a large Lapwing flock milling through the air over South Lake before it was on to the Swan feed and then the long drive home. Definitely worth an early start.