Friday, 19 December 2008

A Day at Slimbridge

A few months ago I joined the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust as I feel that it is a worthy cause to support and it also means that I get in free to places like Slimbridge. Despite having joined I had not yet actually visited any WWT locations so with the year coming to an end and my still needing white-fronted goose for my year list, coupled with the fact that I had a voucher for a free WWT "book of the month" which expired at the end of December, I decided that it was time to get down to Slimbridge for a visit. In addition to the "sure-thing" white-fronted goose tick, a bittern had been "showing well" the previous day from the Zeiss hide so it was worth while putting in some time staring at reeds in the off-chance of it showing again today.

The weather was rather overcast though mild compared to the recent cold spell. As I pulled into the car park after a little over an hour's drive I saw large flocks of lapwings and golden plover with a few dunlin mixed in, flying around overhead: something had obviously put them up. Never having visited before, I picked up a map and navigated my way towards the hides. There are three main areas with wild birds in: to the north west there are a series of hides (Martin Smith, Robbie Garnett and Stephen Kirk) overlooking the Tack Piece (a large field with scrapes, pools and a few reeds) , the Knott hide overlooking the Knott pool, ending with the Holden Tower which overlooks the Dumbles (a large grassy area with a few pools) and the Severn estuary. To the south west there are a few hides (Lathbury, Zeiss and Kingfisher) overlooking some scrapes and reeds and to the south east there are the South Lakes consisting of shallow lakes and scrapes with two hides. I decided to start off at the Holden tower to get the geese, and then to work my way around the reserve. Once I had the geese I was going to be happy to spend a fair amount of time trying for the bittern as I knew from the Slimbridge web reports that there wasn't likely to be much else of great interest around.

After a short walk I found myself at the Holden tower, wrestling with trying to set up my tripod in amongst the tall fixed stools there - I really must get myself a hide clamp. From the right side of the tower it looked out onto the Tack Piece and this is where all the geese were. Furthest away at the back of the field were the white-fronted geese, who seemed a bit shy. Closer in were a flock of 100+ barnacle geese, which I presume were wild and mixed in amongst them were some canadas and a few grey-lags. Some of the Tack Piece scrapes could also be seen and there were several Bewick's swans there (a Slimbrige speciality), some curlews and lots of lapwings. I was told that a pair of hunting peregrines had put most of the waders up (which must have been what I saw as I arrived) but scanning through them I could see a few redshanks feeding close by and the odd dunlin still around. Scanning across the Dumbles soon revealed the culprit: one of the peregrines sitting in the middle of the field, probably digesting its catch.

Overview of the geese: white-fronted at the back, canada and barnacle in the front. Note that the light was really poor and the birds often distant so this and many of the other photos were taken at high ISO settings.

Some of the white-fronted geese coming in to land.

Grazing barnacle geese.

After leaving the Holden tower I worked my way along the other hides which gave different views over the Tack Piece. I managed to find a spotted redshank on the scrape and further down there were large numbers of ducks: tufted, pochard, wigeon, teal and some pintails. Opposite the Robbie Garnett hide were some bird feeders with mostly blue and great tits, some chaffinches and greenfinches and plenty of moorhens on the grass. A water rail had been reported there on the web-site on a number of occasions recently but I couldn't see any sign of it.

Having secured my goose tick I next walked around towards the south west end to see if the bittern was about. I popped first into the Lathbury hide which overlooked some scrapes. On view were plenty of ducks and lots of standing lapwing and dunlin. Next on to the Zeiss hide which overlooked some reeds close by as well as some more distant pools. There I met a fellow birder camped out in the corner who had seen the bittern some three-quarters of an hour ago. It had been well hidden in the reeds but he'd even managed some digiscoped shots of it. Encouraged by this, I set up camp next to him and ate my packed lunch whilst chatting to him about digiscoping and scanning the reeds. After a while I saw something move in the reeds but initially couldn't make it out. Then I realised that it was the top of the bittern's head. I called it out to fellow watchers and then began the difficult process of explaining to the others where it was in amongst the mass of reeds. After a while I even manged to get my scope on it which is very difficult given the comparatively narrow field of view and even managed a few digiscoped shots myself. I stayed and watched it for a while before moving on to the south lake.

Spot the bittern!

The south lake has two hides: the Hogarth hide and the South lake observatory. Judging from the web-site reports there are usually a few waders around but today from either hide all I could see were a large number of lapwings and a few ducks. Accordingly I decided to make my way back to the north west hides for a last look before heading back home.

A Bewick's swan and a curlew on the Tack Piece.

There was not much different from my earlier visit to these hides. In fact the peregrine was still sitting in the same place in the Dumbles so it obviously had a big meal to digest. Someone said that they'd seen the water rail by the feeders ten minutes previously so I waited a bit but it didn't show. I therefore worked my way back towards the main visitor reception, picked up my free book of the month (The Complete Illustrated Encyclopedia of European and British Birds) and headed back home.

Two of the redshank that were on the Tack Piece

A pleasant trip to visit this fascinating place and a couple more year ticks. In fact the bittern was yet another technical lifer (where I couldn't remember whether I'd seen it as a boy). This brings my year total to 222 and tantalisingly close to my target of 225. In addition the barnacle geese means that a dodgy escapee tick from earlier in the year could be legitimised.

2008 Year List:

221: white-fronted goose

222: bittern (technical lifer)

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