It was with a sinking sense of inevitability that Saturday dawned wet and wild, conditions which stubbornly remained until early evening by which time it was too late for much of anything. Thankfully the forecast for Sunday looked a whole lot more promising so we took the plunge and headed cross border to Slimbridge, flagship reserve of the WWT. It’s been a good couple of years since our last visit but the feelings of familiarity came flooding back as soon as we arrived thanks in no small part to a relationship with this site stretching back over thirty years (and yes I do feel old writing that). Such traditions dictate we park on the far side of the car park, pop into the loos on our way past and then head straight for Rushy Hide which often has the best photographic opportunities for those of us packing smaller lenses. Today was no different. With temperatures barely above freezing there were masses of waterfowl present including hundreds of Pintail, thirty or so Bewick’s Swans plus umpteen Pochard, Tufted Duck and Lapwing, just a small taster of what was to come. I took my fill with this worm pulling Lapwing probably pick of the bunch.
We could have stayed here a whole lot longer but the sight of two Common Cranes drifting over has a strange way of altering plans. They looked as if they were coming into land on the next pen along so we quickly relocated to the Martin Smith hide where for such big birds they’d seemingly managed a decent disappearing act. In their place were thousands upon thousands of birds, Golden Plover, Wigeon, Redshank, Dunlin and Ruff to name just a few. All were agitated in the extreme and it didn’t take long to figure out why. Sat towards the rear were two Peregrine Falcons looking every bit the focussed killing machines you’d expect, each periodically taking flight putting everything else up in the process. Their motives almost appeared boisterous in nature, idle dives which looked innocent enough though would surely have turned more deadly had the opportunity presented itself. For those of us watching this was an amazing spectacle especially when one of the Peregrines came incredibly close, Lapwing entourage in tow.
What a way to start the morning and with my parents also having now arrived it was time to take in more of the gathered masses. There really were birds everywhere with Wigeon numbers particularly impressive. We counted at least four thousand but that’s almost certainly a conservative estimate. Curlew too were pleasingly numerous and I don’t think I’ve seen as many Dunlin on an inland site for quite some time.
It was the Holden Tower though which really took things to the next level with our closest views to date of Greenland White-fronted Geese. From the ground floor we could see thirty feeding and squabbling, their calls a curious high pitched quack and not at all as I’d expected. In strong winter sunshine the white base of their beaks positively shone marking them out from the commoner Greylags also present.
Looking out towards the Severn there was more goosy goodness with hundreds of Barnacle Geese spread out over a wide area. They were however a little distant for photos, as were the five Common Cranes, but I had to try a couple of record shots thanks to an interloper in their midst. Initially hard to pick out thanks to its surprisingly indistinct plumage in the field, this Red-breasted Goose did eventually go for a wander allowing us all great views. As with most individuals of this species the thorny issue of origin rears its head with the general consensus being that this is probably an escapee. I’ve always been of the opinion however that a person’s list and their criteria for adding to it is a personal thing and as a result am happy to add this one to mine.
Heading over to the other side of the reserve we encountered a brief snow flurry before the sun returned once more affording us great views of a feeding Water rail at close quarters. There were at least six Common Snipe too but alas no Bittern this time around and eventually all were flushed by one of the morning’s Peregrines still out causing havoc.
Probably my most memorable sight of the day was to be had from the Kingfisher hide where a recently ploughed field was absolutely crammed with waders. Hundreds of Lapwing, Dunlin and Golden Plover for as far as the eye could see, a concentration of wildlife that we so rarely get to enjoy. There was excitement closer to home as well with the feeders playing host to a Redpoll, albeit very briefly, whilst directly below a resourceful family of Rats had set up a series of tunnels. The beauty in their design only becomes apparent as you watch Woodpigeons throw seed here there and everywhere, much of it falling straight down into a tunnel entrance. Talk about delivery to your door.
South Lake had yet more delights with surprisingly our first Little Egret of the day (I think we’re probably spoiled here in South Wales) as well as up to seven Avocets which looked stunning in the failing evening light. The same conditions allowed the plumage of a pair of Teals to show up beautifully.
After six hours and fifty six species it was time to call it a day and head for home. We’d had some fantastic encounters but really it was the Peregrine Falcons and White-fronted Geese which stand out above all others. As an added bonus I think I’ve just about defrosted as well!