Great Scott what a great days birdwatching that ended austfully well

On Sunday I visited Slimbridge with my birding pals Paul and Nicola. Over a decade has passed since I last visited this wonderful reserve.

Founded in 1946 by Sir Peter Scott the son of the famous explorer Captain Robert Falcon Scott. As a boy I was given the book "South with Scott" by my father and continue to have it to this day on my bookshelf. It told the incredible but tragic story of Scotts race to the South Pole. Sir Peter Scott was to become if anything in my view even more famous than his father. A talented artist, naturalist, sailor, glider pilot and above all conservationist.

As a child my parents took me and my sister to Slimbridge. It was quite a journey back then and not cheap.I am always thankful that they did as it was my parents who introduced to me to wildlife and kindled my life long interest in natural history.

Last time I visited my own children were young and to be honest were quite overwhelmed by the large Greylag Geese and Swans. There were a couple of hides which I remember were good for viewing out onto the estuary and all I had back then was a pair of binoculars and a cheap digital camera.

This time however me and my fellow "amigos" were armed to the teeth with cameras , big lenses and scopes.

I just admit the reserve has had a big overhaul and now sports quite a variety of hides and a lovely visitor centre ( well it looks a lot different to what I remember). A tip - visit the Amphibian exhibit the Great Crested Newts and poison frogs are awesome.

This year I have decided to support the WWT and have taken out a years membership. It will also encourage me to try somewhere different to my beloved Goldcliff Lagoons every now and then.

Walking out of the visitor centre we were greeted by hoards of waterfowl on the various ponds and walkways. Greylags, Mute Swans, Hawaiian Geese (Nee Nees), White Fronted Geese, all kinds of ducks, Gulls and Crows.  I must admit getting close to birds is always a joy for me. I spend so much of my time looking at birds through a big lens at very long distances I rarely get to appreciate what they look like close up.

Avocet recuperating. 


The reserve has an enclosure where injured birds are kept to recuperate from injury. This was a delight to visit as inside were Avocets, Black Winged Stints , Redshank and Ruff. It was absolutely fabulous to get so near to these beautiful birds.  Avocets are truly dainty birds, everything about them looks fragile but they are surprisingly feisty birds when I have watched them in the wild defending their chicks from predators.

Black Winged Stilt

Redshank

Ruff


If you like "Pink" birds you will be in luck at Slimbridge. They have Caribbean, Andean and Chilean Flamingos. I never tire of photographing these magnificent birds.

Andean Flamingo


For those people who prefer to see the more " wilder" native birds you need to head to the hides. There is now quite a selection of hides to visit.

Now for me this is where the fun was to be really found. The first hides we entered was the Martin Smith Hide. It provided a view over a "reen" like stretch of water into a large water-logged field.

Almost every square foot was covered in waterfowl. Thousands of lapwing and Wigeon Ducks. It was a sight to behold and I did not know which way to point my camera. It was what us photographers call a target rich environment. I felt like a bird of prey swooping into a flock of birds not sure which one to aim for!

Loud honking announced a fly by of three huge white Bewick Swans (we would see lots of these throughout the day). They really looked out of this world with their angelic wings as they descended into the water using it like a landing strip. The swans make great subjects to take photographs of in flight.

Bewick Swans

As I scanned the field and my heart beat got down to something more normal I saw that there was  a lot more species than wigeon's and lapwings. A flock of Dunlin's were feeding at a water-logged part of the field. Pin tailed ducks dabbled in a sheltered marshy area in front of the hide. Curlews gathered in small groups scattered throughout the Wigeon. A small flock of Redshank hurtled in and joined the Wigeon at the waters edges.

Then like an explosion had gone off there was birds filling the sky in utter chaos. I don't think I have ever seen so many birds. I love big flocks of birds and I was in my element. I am sure Paul and Nicola were also as excited as I was. The sound of rattling camera shutters made the hide sound more like a World War 2 machine gun nest. I can assure you - no birds were harmed but a lot of them got "snapshotted" :)

Lapwings

Lots of Birds. Golden Plovers (top), White Fronted ( Bottom left), Lapwings, Curlews and more.


We moved to the Robie Garnett hide and got an even better view of the action. As the birds swirled in the sky from an adjoining field it looked like they had called in the reinforcements. Like a huge swarm of fighters came a massive flock of Golden Plovers, more lapwings and White-Fronted Geese.

The Golden Plovers were just outstanding. I have only ever seen a solitary bird of this species at Goldcliff. Now I was watching a flock of hundreds.

Golden Plovers


The birds eventually settled and things calmed down for a while but the status quo rarely lasted and they would be back up in the sky again causing pandemonium. I am assuming the protagonist was a Peregrine Falcon but we never caught sight of one.

During one of the chaotic periods a total of five Common Cranes made an appearance which was great to see.

Slimbridge is close to the Seven Estuary so its no surprise that some of the hides look out over it. We found the Zeis hide to be particularly good. Although the wind sweeping through the open viewing slats was freezing. From the elevated vantage of the hide you can see across a water inlet and out onto the Estuary. The whole area was covered in huge numbers of Lapwings and Golden Plovers.

The view from Zeis hide

Golden Plovers

Lapwings ( also a Golden plover and a Dunlin)

Lapwings and Plovers

Their numbers surpassed what we had seen earlier. They too had a habit of hurtling into the sky in large flocks as soon as something spooked them. A Buzzard was spotted but I am sure a Peregrine was hanging about as several times the birds went really high performing classic Falcon evasive  manoeuvre's. As we sat and watched they were joined by a total of eleven Common Cranes. A record for me, I have never seen so many.

To end our visit we returned to the Martin Smith. Last weekend Nicola captured some amazing video of a Jack Snipe. I had never seen one of these birds so was keen to try my luck. As it happened things were going to turn out good on that front but I was going to need a great deal of assistance to see one.

Jack Snipe are notoriously well camouflaged. They make Common Snipe look like amateurs. I guess they have their small size as an advantage.

At the hide one of my birding friends who was also visiting pointed out where the Jack Snipe was. Well lets say he pointed at a patch of grass that had nothing in it! I looked, squinted, stared, zoomed in my big lens to max magnification and saw - NOTHING. It was invisible. In fact I concluded as my only good eye began to water withe eye strain it was not there at all.

But it was. My friend chuckling as he did so took my camera and focused it for me on what looked like uninhabited grass. Then he offered me a look. Well there it was. I could just about make its head out and its eye. Unbelievably camouflaged. I would have never found that myself.  I owe him a good bird sighting now at Goldcliff :)

That was probably my highlight of the Slimbridge visit.

Can you find it?


Next stop on our journey home would be Aust Wharf.

Aust Wharf is a strip of windswept grassland that adjoins the Severn Estuary and lies between the two bridges. Its been a haven for Short Eared Owls over the last few years or so.

On arrival the sun was beginning to set and it looked fantastic but it also almost blinded you when you pointed your camera at it.

Sunset at Aust


There were a few birders gathered around waiting. Then as I looked towards the old Severn Crossing I glimpsed a big bird gliding around the reeds.  It was a Shorty. It began to quarter the grassland and slowly get closer. I excitedly jogged down the road my progress hidden by a line of parked cars and reeds.

It then passed me as it hunted. In the low light it was difficult to focus but I manged to grab a few pictures. Another two shorties joined it but after showing for a short times they all flew over the road out of view into an adjacent view.

We all managed to get some pictures of these fantastic creatures so were overjoyed with this bonus visit.

Short Eared Owl about to dive down.

Whos looking at me?


So that ended a fantastic days bird watching. We are so fortunate to have such great places to visit. Slimbridge is real jewel of a place to visit and long may it continue. The WWT have my support and I would recommend anyone to visit the reserve.

Aust Wharf is one of these amazing places that most people would never dream of visiting. However its full of nature and I do hope that it remains so. In my opinion it would be great to declare the whole area between the bridges a national nature reserve and keep it protected.


Flying off into the distance.


Comments

  1. What an amazing account of an equally amazing day out with you and Nicola. Here's hoping for more of the same.

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