Christmas Eve at Slimbridge


A Bewick Swan flies above the Tack Piece.

My last trip of the year to WWT Slimbridge felt very festive as it was on Christmas Eve. The Three Amigos rode again and probably for the last time this year along the motorway at the crack of dawn hoping to have a good days birding.

Paul did the driving for the day as my car was out of action and I was still suffering from the after effects of seven days of covid isolation. Nicola was in charge of refereeing the Canon V Nikon banter between me and Paul ( Not as if she is biased at all being a Nikon user herself) and both Nicola and I were being good carers to Paul who tends to go missing at bird hotspots when he gets a little too excited!

We had  picked quite a good day weather wise. It was quite mild and the skies were starting to clear as we rolled up in the reserves car park.

The journey had flown by mostly due to the non-stop banter between us and putting the world to right. 

On entering the reserve through the members gate we were greeted by a big flock of lapwings flying overhead. Then we slipped quietly into the Rushy Hide. The pools were full of wildfowl. Bewick Swans were everywhere and I counted at least a hundred of them. In amongst the many ducks was a solitary Mandarin. I scanned the flock but could not find the Greater Scaup that had been seen over the last week.

As the light got better it was time to move on to the other public hides . I was keen to check out the Willow Hide for Water Rail activity.

The shy and elusive Water Rails are known to show quite regularly under the feeders at the Willow Hide. The rails are nervous birds and you need to be quiet when your in the hide. Any sudden noises can spook a Water Rail and it will scanter off into the nearby reeds.

When we first arrived at the Willow Hide the feeders were quite busy with the usual Blue Tits, Great Tits , House Sparrows , Moorhens and a Greater Spotted Woodpecker. There was no sign of any Water Rails. I listened for the pig like squeal calls but it was all quiet.

I decided to head to the nearby Robbie Garnet hide and watch the bird activity on the Tack Piece. Gazing out of the hide across the expanse of fields and reen that makes up the Tack its was amazing to see so many birds.

Alarmed birds take to the skies

Golden Plovers take there time to settle down on the Tack

At this time of year it is not unusual to see hundreds if not thousands of birds comprising of various duck species, swans and waders. 

There were huge numbers of Lapwings. The flock was spread out all across the tack. In waves the birds would take to the air, startled by some threat they could seen but more often than not us humans failed to notice what was scaring them. In all probability there was a Marsh Harrier or Peregrine Falcon stalking the skies around the Tack.

Golden Plover flock

Lapwing flock

Joining the Lapwings was a flock of several hundred Golden Plovers. In many respects the plovers were even more jumpy than the Lapwings. The Golden Plovers were a little distant for good photographs. When they were frightened the flock would fly high into the sky well above everything else and slowly descend to the ground when they felt the threat had gone.

The plover were joined on the flashes of water that litters the Tack Piece , by Black Tailed Godwits and Dunlins. These wader species would also take flight in response to the Lapwings alarm calls and sudden bursts of flight.

Golden Plovers ( photograph and video taken with the Nikon P1000 for the extra reach it provides)

Lapwings were in huge numbers

There was so much to look at and take in. When you scanned the panoramic views of birds more species of birds could be picked out. There were three Common Cranes - two had rings and one was without - suspected to be this years chick.

Wigeon , Teal, Tufted, Pintail and Shelducks were in good numbers. Dotted amongst the ducks were small family flocks of Bewick and Mute Swans. The Bewicks would take to the air and make a lot of noise calling to each other across the Tack before landing again in a big commotion.

Various Geese species were present. The usual Greylag and Canada were joined by a Snow Goose and there was rumour that some White Fronts and a Brent Goose were out there on the Tack.

Hidden on the waters edge that borders the Tack were Snipe , Redshank and Ruff. Later we would see more Snipe in front of the Martin Smith Hide.

I took a huge amount of pictures of the very excitable wader flocks but must admit I was a little disappointed by my standards with  some of the pictures. The birds were just  too far away for my liking and the light was not ideal. I enjoyed the experience throughly though its not all about taking pictures in any case.

All three of us from time to time would sneak off back to the Willow Hide to try our luck with the Water Rail. I eventually got lucky and as I popped my head in to check the ground beneath the feeders - there it was skulking around with some Moorhens.

Water Rail cocks its tail in alarm

Water Rail skulking under the feeder.

Compared to the Moorhens the rail is a lot smaller and very much the more nervous bird. Keeping quiet and trying to whisper to other birdwatchers entering the hide the rail eventually settled down and began to forage the leaves underneath the hanging feeders picking out fallen sunflower seeds.

The plumage of Water Rails really amazes me. They have a greyish plumage that looks quite bluish in good light. Their backs are coloured brown and black but underneath their lower belly and tail is black and white almost Zebra like.

Sifting through the leaves searching for seeds.

The blue/ grey plumage

I was able to get quite low down and take some more eye level pictures with the Rail. Despite the poor light I managed to get some decent photographs. If anyone is interested I was suing my Nikon D850 with my Sigma 150-600 c lens. I went for shutter speeds between 640 and 1600 ( I like using high shutter speeds when holding the camera without a tripod in order to avoid blurred pics). Due to poor light I had to use high ISO between 1000 and 1600 - I hate using anything above 1600 ISO on my D850 as it just gets too noisy beyond that. The pictures I took were subsequently under exposed but in post editing using Photoshop I could increase exposure to compensate for that. Any noise was removed using Topaz Denoise.

After having some luck with the Water Rail it was time for the Amigos to go exploring the reserve. We walked to the Kingfisher Hide and settled down to have our breakfast. 

Suddenly a very irate Peregrine Falcon was seen circling the field in front of the hide. A Buzzard had robbed the falcon of its kill - an unlucky Snipe ( that was the consensus of opinion after we all reviewed our pictures later). The Peregrine was squawking constantly circling the Buzzard doing dummy attack runs at the bigger bird of prey. Eventually the Peregrine settled about 30 meters away from the Buzzard and was forced to watch the Buzzard eat its breakfast.

A very upset Peregrine Falcon rages at a Buzzard below for stealing its kill.

It stoops in a feint to try and intimidate an unbothered Buzzard.

In the end the Buzzard filled its crop and flew off to a nearby post leaving the remnants of the Snipe for the Peregrine to pick on. The Falcon swooped quickly in, fed for a moment before getting pestered by the crows and then flew away taking the carcass with it.

An amazing drama to watch whilst eating our sandwiches for sure.

The fields in front of the Kingfisher Hide were alive with waders. Huge flocks of Lapwings and Golden Plovers were constantly up and down in the sky. Scattered amongst them were Dunlins and Redshanks.

Golden Plover take to to the skies.

We Amigos eventually moved on again and headed this time for the cafe to get a nice cup of coffee. Then were did the rounds again and checked all the hides. The Water Rail showed again and we also got some more pictures of Snipe at the Martin Smiths Hide.

Back at the Willow Hide the rail shows again

Close up cropped picture of the Water Rails head.

Snipe hidden in the grass observed from the Martin Smith Hide.

Once again a trip to Slimbridge proved to be very enjoyable and good birding day out with great company.

Merry Christmas to all my readers. I hope you are all able to enjoy some birdwatching over the festive period.

Bird List

Not every species gets a mention above but there was plenty of birds seen throughout the day.

  1. Bewick Swan
  2. Mute Swan
  3. Tufted Duck
  4. Shoveler
  5. Teal
  6. Shelduck
  7. Pintail
  8. Mandarin
  9. Greylag Goose
  10. Canada Goose
  11. Snow Goose
  12. Snipe
  13. Lapwing
  14. Redshank
  15. Ruff
  16. Black Tailed Godwits
  17. Golden Plover
  18. Dunlin
  19. Curlew
  20. Cormorant
  21. Peregrine
  22. Buzzard
  23. Common Crane
  24. Starling
  25. Great Tit
  26. Blue Tit
  27. Dunnock
  28. Great Spotted Woodpecker
  29. Wood Pigeon
  30. Robin
  31. Blackbird
  32. Reed Bunting
  33. Avocet
  34. Barnacle Goose
  35. Black Headed Gull
  36. Herring Gull
  37. Coot
  38. Moorhen
  39. Great White Egret
  40. Mallard
  41. Porchard
  42. Rook
  43. Jackdaw
  44. Carrion Crow
  45. Stonechat


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