It’s always the same story at the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust at Slimbridge, Gloucestershire after I’ve flashed my membership card and I’m walking getting that first view of the patchwork of lakes designed by Sir Peter Scott.
All at once, it’s too familiar and unchanging, but the familiarity is a reassuring comfort too. It’s a comfort because it hasn’t been jazzed up or dumbed down or sexed-up or embiggened.
Sure, there have been changes – big ones from the buildings point of view and from the aspect of extension of facilities – the welly play area for kids, better refreshment facilities are just two – but the central raison d’etre remains sacrosanct – it’s a place where visitors can quietly build their own relationship with wild birds. You can feed them, watch them, draw them, photograph them and if you’re a spirited toddler you can even try chasing them or grabbing them with chubby little hands.
Sir Peter Scott, the wildfowler-turned-world-renowned conservationist, knew that most people, faced with the close-up beauty of a wild bird, the fast-beating heart, the gentle intelligent eye, the extraordinary wing feathers, the wondrous colours of the showy birds like flamingos or the fabulous irridescence of arguably the ugliest duck, the Muscovy, will be captivated.
It’s why I go back time and again. Yesterday was a dull February day and I was too full of cold and stuffed up to ride my bike so I needed to be exercised, inspired and enriched by another means.
Although at first sight everything is familiar, the place and its occupants are different every single time.
This time, the pond nearest the building was full of perky-looking tufted duck. Out on the watermeadows beyond the fox fence, the wind was behind them, blowing their cheeky little head tufts up in the air reminiscent of early Nigel Kennedy. There were a few Bewick swans a plenty of Mutes, mature and immature.. but the real Spring action was with the eider ducks.
Eider ducks are my favourite sea ducks – the males splendid in sharp black and white with palest salmon-pink breasts and moss green patches on their necks. The females.. well…they just look resigned to being brown. The males were tuning up for the mating display, stretching their necks to exclaim “oooh” with a rising tone, rather like Frankie Howerd. Only the “Missus!” is missing. They were all wound up and excitable with splashy skirmishes here and there between competing males, particularly those on the verge of maturity. The females were underwhelmed but will know what it’s all about very very soon, I suspect.
The whistling ducks were tuning up for Spring too, as were the pintails. Only the flamingoes seemed depressed and indolent, roosting hunched, heads tucked in, as though waiting for the temperatures to rise and the sun to shine.
Out on the Dumbles, the salt marshes of the Severn, hundreds of ducks and geese swam in the pools or grazed the marshes. A bird watcher in one of the hides – kitted out with a very serious telescope and beard (the beard is key to the seriousness of the man) – reckoned he could see a sparrowhawk perched somewhere behind the reeds. It was behind the reach of my binoculars but it caused a fluttering of interest in the hide.
Last time we visited Slimbridge, there was a curious sign proclaiming ‘Otter Talks 11.30am + 3.00pm’
It was a big claim, a talking otter. But that time, I didn’t see any – verbose or silent.
This time, although I didn’t hear any actual conversation, I saw three American otters, all slinky and soaking on a slab of rock, busily grooming each other in the most sociable way. They were like the three amigos – close buddies – it was obvious they swam together, ate together and as they romped up the hillside over bundles of logs, played together.
Watching them was a bewitching treat as the closest I’ve come to a British wild otter Lutra lutra was a brief glimpse of head and concentric circles in the water where it dived in a local river.
These American otters were fast, slinky-smooth swimmers, doing torpedo rotations just for the fun of it before sliding up out of the water on to the rock again to dry off a little. There was reflective glass separating the public from the enclosure, which was a shame because it marred the pics, but I snapped a few anyway.
Heading back to the centre in search of hot soup, we passed a whole group of birdwatchers in quiet green multi-pocketed jackets and trousers with telescopes, monopods, binoculars, walking boots, woolly socks, woolly hats. They looked like they had been fully kitted out according to the gospel of Bird Watching magazine. Or maybe they had just looked at the ads at the back and decided to do it properly – buy everything on one page. So it’s not just about watching the swans and ducks at Slimbridge; some of the birdwatchers are fair game too 🙂
American Wood Duck – similar to our mallard.
The ugly duckling who didn’t turn into a beautiful swan – the Muscovy Duck….
….and ugly ducking that *did* turn into the beautiful Mute swan
A big claim….. but turned out to be nearly true!