After a week of soggy gloom, the sun had his hat on as we arrived at the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust at Slimbridge on the first day of February.
There was lots going on because it’s the Festival of Birds weekend which means expert guides, talks, demonstrations, artists and stands selling specialist telescopes and camera equipment. As usual the real stars of the show were outside, preening, splashing, paddling and diving in the ponds, flying overhead or feeding on the marshy wetlands by the Severn. It’s the best time of year to visit Slimbridge as there are not just hundreds but thousands of birds there.
I’m lucky to live less than 30 mins drive away from Slimbridge. It has the world’s largest collection of exotic, rare and endangered ducks, geese and swans in a reserve which is internationally important.
I hadn’t been up in the Sloan Tower before so the view from the top was a surprise – a panorama of the Severn estuary and wetland bathed in sunshine.
The many lakes, pools, rivulets and watery ditches on the Trust land were shining blue and beyond, the flat flooded marshes stretched to the wide Severn, where one of the highest tides of the year had swept up river about an hour before.
Vast flocks of ducks, flocks of lapwings, settled on the marshes but every now and then a disturbance would cause scores of them to rise fluttering into the air, swirling, circling, and swooping like the hands of a conductor directing a symphony.
Trust experts – who can count birds far better than I – reckoned there were 3,000 golden plovers, 6,000 lapwings, 1200 widgeon, 323 shoveler ducks in addition to the ‘usual’ suspects to be seen in the ponds closest to the centre.
Birds seems to get special pleasure from playing on blustery winds – the rocking and rolling of flocks of jackdaws studded by playful rooks and crows.
At Slimbridge, it’s not only the waterfowl that grab your attention – a very portly, handsome pigeon photobombed one of my shots of the Bewicks. Just along the way, a big old rook – his irridescent feathers gleaming spendidly in the sun, was dying to get in on the act and grab some of the birdfood scattered by visitors.
There were plenty of beautiful Bewick swans wintering in the grounds. Slimbridge has always been famous for its Bewicks, which arrive from arctic Russia and are carefully recorded using the individual patterns on their bills. It’s always a source of regret if a Bewick arrives without his mate because swans tend to pair for life and sadly these birds have been in serious decline year on year since the 1990’s.
The tufted duck were looking very perky, their tufts blowing in the wind and my favourites… the eider ducks, were starting to get into mating mood.
The males were looking in peak condition with salmon-tinged breasts and moss green shaded feathers that look as though they’ve brushed up against a lichen-covered fence.
Today’s new experience was finding out how they catch and ring birds to record the distribution and spread of different species. Turns out that the great Sir Peter Scott, founder of the WWT and all-round hero, chose to live at Slimbridge because of the decoy ponds there, built in the 19th century to trap ducks as a source of food for the Berkeley estate. He saw the value of using them ring and record wildlife to lean more about migration patterns and their movements throughout Europe and the East.
The pond is a mermaid’s purse shape with a centre lagoon and arms going off covered in netting which becomes lower and lower until the ducks are within arms reach.
I’d always known that a dog was used for this work but I assumed the dog somehow herded the ducks. Wrong. Zen, the Nova Scotia Duck-Tolling Retriever was trained to trot along the side of the water. The ducks’ natural instinct is to keep a potential predator in sight so they follow the dog – with its reddish coat and bushy tail it looks, from a distance, like a fox – into the tunnel of netting.
The birds are then caught, weighed, measured and ringed. Their details are recorded and they are free to fly back into the wild.
They use ‘mist netting’ with extremely fine nylon netting to catch small birds and ring them. While it was fascinating to see the decoy man competently and kindly handling a wild duck, it was even more incredible to see the skill with which experienced ‘ringers’ deal with tiny birds such as a blue tit.
After several hours outside, warming up time in the café was essential – and it’s where you chat to people and discover what else can be seen – a pair of cranes, introduced during the Great Crane Project, had been seen by two women we met – and another couple talked about the bank voles which were dashing about near one hide and proving very difficult to photograph!
It was clear I only saw a fraction of what was actually happening. This probably means I should go back very soon…
Zen, the Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever