Last Autumn whilst visiting the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust at Slimbridge I was persuaded to become a member. Today I decided to use my membership for the first time to visit in the hope of coming across a Jack Snipe that had been seen for the last few days in the vicinity of the Willow Hide.
With a WWT membership you can get in before the official opening time of nine thirty so I figured this would allow me to get into the Willow Hide before it got too crowded. I need not have worried as my assumptions that the whole place, including the hide, would be heaving with people proved completely wrong and although there were birders and visitors about it was pleasantly quiet.
The day was raw, with a cold wind blowing and the inevitable cloud. I stood in the Willow Hide looking out on an unpromising area of water, dead reeds and some scattered bird feeders, the latter currently being monopolised by Jackdaws and a Rook.
When they departed the Great and Blue Tits moved in, as well as some House Sparrows. A cock Pheasant busied itself hoovering up the seed that had fallen onto the mud below the feeders.
The Jack Snipe was nowhere to be seen. It was, admittedly, a gamble on my part as it had not been reported yesterday either but there was the prospect of seeing a Water Rail which had become something of a regular, if intermittent attraction, below the feeders. Like the Water Rails at my local Farmoor Reservoir this individual had worked out that there were safe and easy pickings of fallen seed if it remained below the feeders and with the added comfort of the adjacent reeds in which to hide.
A Little Grebe and its partner whinneyed to each other and very briefly showed themselves but soon sought the security of the tangled dead reeds and where the water penetrated beneath overhanging bushes. A male Teal, absolutely glorious in his finest plumage, swam confidently up to the feeders to also help himself to the seed fallen into the water.
A small brown form emerged, rodent like, from the dead reeds. It was the Water Rail which proceeded to pick the seed from the water and also to duck its head and forebody below the water to retrieve seed that had sunk to the shallow bottom. Like all of its kind it was always edgy and various minor alarms would promptly send it back to the reeds from where it would cautiously re-emerge each time.
Two Moorhens and a Coot headed for the same place and the Water Rail, obviously uneasy about their presence, disappeared. I gave it about ninety minutes at the hide but it was pretty obvious the Jack Snipe was not going to appear even if it was still here, secreted in the reeds somewhere.
Well, as I was here it would be remiss not to have a wander around the grounds and check out the other birds to see and so that is exactly what I did, visiting various hides and concentrating on mainly the wild birds but occasionally allowing myself to be tempted by the captive ones, as they were all in full breeding plumage and a glorious sight to behold
Here are some of the other birds I saw today with no particular preference
|Eurasian Wigeon-males and a female|
|Northern Pintail- male and female|
|Northern Shoveler-male and female|
I had my lunch in the restaurant at Slimbridge and then decided to head for home in the early afternoon but en route made a diversion to a place called Hawling in the Gloucestershire Cotswolds which was very conveniently just a short turnoff from the road to Stow on The Wold and just thirty minutes from home. The attraction at Hawling are the Short eared Owls that come there every winter, inhabiting the rough pastureland on either side of a narrow single track rural road. This winter there is also the added thrill of a Great Grey Shrike which has made the surrounding fields and bushes its winter home.
|Common Shelduck-male and female|
Unfortunately Hawling and its owls is now common knowledge and many photographers and birders arrive there in the late afternoon in the hope of encountering the owls.This would be fine but as seems more and more prevalent nowadays there have been incidents of people not staying on the road but entering the fields and generally behaving in a selfish and thoughtless manner.
Today, thankfully there was no such inconsiderate behaviour and all was relatively quiet with just three photographers in attendance, each of them touting a huge hand held lens which to my mind seemed impossibly big to hold steady. My modest lens and camera were puny by comparison and for the most part not suitable for getting pictures of the owls. Nonetheless I was just as pleased to have this opportunity to wait in the hope of watching them flying about, although this was by no means guaranteed.
I parked my car on the verge by a dry stone wall, making sure I did not get the car stuck in the wet and muddy grass. This is another bone of contention as so many cars have parked on the verge over the winter months and got stuck that it has become quite degraded.
Getting out of the car I saw an owl immediately, flying distantly above the rough grassland, rising up and away from me. Short eared Owls have a lovely way of flying, their long paddle shaped wings slowly flapping with a curious abbreviated but at the same time languid and fluid motion.This was the first Short eared Owl I had seen for over a year.
The owl disappeared over the brow of the slope and I made my way down the narrow road to look at the Great Grey Shrike which was currently perched on a hawthorn bush, silhouetted prominently against the sky, on the other side of the road. Its grey upperparts, white underparts and black face mask made it highly conspicuous and at regular intervals it would fly down to the ground, its black and white wings and tail flickering, to seize a beetle or whatever, before returning back to its elevated perch, flicking its long tail in nervous excitement.
Having had my fill of the shrike I returned up the narrow road but there had been no sign of any more owls. For thirty minutes I stood by the wall looking out over the silent fields, a sea of dead, winter browned and buff grass. There was little to see apart from three cock pheasants scattered at random across the grassy waste, even their iridescent burnished copper plumage looking dull in this dreary landscape and a lone Kestrel was perched on a post far out in the middle of the field..
|Great Grey Shrike|
Then it all started happening at once as the owls seemed to mutually decide this was the time to go hunting. It was difficult to estimate the exact number of owls here but I reckon there were at least seven.
One crossed the road, swinging from side to side in buoyant flight, followed by others rising from their hidden roosting places in the fields. It was a struggle to work out where to look first, as owls were flying both in front and behind me, and they covered a large area, so there was also the pleasant dilemna of whether to walk up the road and follow them or wait for others to appear where I stood. I opted for the latter and was duly rewarded, as every so often an owl would come relatively near and I could plainly see its plumage of golden buff, streaked and chequered with black and brown markings and startling yellow eyes.Their profile is so strange with a massive head incorporating the huge eyes and ears in a white dish like face to enable them to locate their prey. Their body is curiously flat backed as they fly like giant moths low over the land, quartering the fields endlessly in their silent quest for prey and when they finally locate something they check, stall and drop like a stone into the grass, all in the fraction of a second.
One owl, flying along, suddenly stalled and pitched head first into the rough grass and then holding its wings high above its body to evade the long grass, rose up clutching a vole which it carried in its talons across the road and settled in a field to eat.
Another two owls had a brief conflict, swearing at each other in their anger with a rasping, screaming sound. For the next hour owls regularly appeared, flying back and fore, to and fro across the fields and the road but usually too distant for my camera to cope adequately. I gave up a lost cause and watched them in my bins to enjoy this precious time. Eventually there were no more owls, presumably they had all caught a vole and were no longer hungry and had settled back in the grass.
I took my leave too.