Saturday 24 March 2018

A Day out at Slimbridge 23rd March 2018

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.

Eurasian Teal-male
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. 

Water Rail
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.

Common Moorhen

Common Coot
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

Greater Scaup-male

Common Goldeneye-male


Common Crane

Northern Shoveler-male and female


Common Pochard-male
Common Shelduck-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.

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.

Great Grey Shrike
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..

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.

Friday 23 March 2018

A Halcyon Day 21st March 2018

The first day of Spring dawned just as one would hope, as a benign morning, a little chilly but sunny and with a gentle wind. Blackbirds, Chaffinches, Robins, Great Tits and Woodpigeons were all singing from around the garden, primroses and daffodils were adding their bright colours to the greening verges and the whole day was set fair, a welcome diversion into more normal weather after the snow, strong, cold winds and rain of the past weeks.

Today I had Common Kingfishers on my mind. I say Common Kingfisher as that is the correct name to identify 'our' Kingfisher from all the other kingfishers in the world, of which there are many. However for  simplicity sake I will now refer to Kingfisher in this blog and drop the 'Common' 

Kingfishers are known to virtually everybody in Britain, due to being the most brilliantly coloured of all the bird species regularly found here and consequently finding themselves commemorated on mugs, china plates and countless greeting cards as well as being a perennially favourite image in wildlife magazines. There is even a beer called Kingfisher! People who have never seen one in real life can usually describe what a Kingfisher looks like, so ubiquitous is its image and when one is actually seen it always brings a sense of wonder, discovery and achievement to birder or member of the public alike. No one ever dismisses a sighting of a Kingfisher and it is regarded as almost a privilege to see one. Not that they are always seen that clearly, the usual sighting is of a seemingly disembodied patch of vivid electric blue, disappearing on short whirring wings and at incredible velocity into the distance, low over the water, following the course of a slow moving lowland river, canal or stream, often emitting a shrill chee or chi-kee, trilled two or three times in succession.

If you are very lucky you may catch a glimpse of one, before it flies, its curiously squat body with an inordinately large head and long spear of a bill perched quietly and unobtrusively on twig or reed, river post or canal wall overlooking an area of still and shallow water, awaiting an opportunity to dive on any incautious small fish or invertebrate below.

In previous posts I referred to the disproportionate shape of the Hawfinch due to its huge head and bill and here, in the Kingfisher, we have another similar example. The business end of the Kingfisher comprises a large head counterbalancing a long and substantial, black pointed bill, the rest of its small body  appearing inconsequential in comparison, this imbalance further emphasised by its stumpy tail and tiny feet.

The Kingfisher is indeed a thing of great beauty, basically blue above and orange  below but this cursory description hardly does its plumage the justice it deserves. The upperparts comprise blues of many shades, these colours seeming to vary, according to the angle of light, from deep blue to emerald green but its mantle and back are always a dazzling and vivid cobalt blue. The crown of its head is patterned with a myriad of tiny crescents of pale blue on a deeper greenish blue background as are the wing coverts, studded with lines of similar pale blue markings, and there is a white flash on its neck and chin. Its very short feet and toes are the colour of red sealing wax whilst the underparts are a shade of rich chestnut.

This perfection of plumage is however married to less savoury aspects. It is markedly aggressive  to its own kind as well as other species and highly territorial. In fights they will endeavour to drown their rival by holding their opponent's bill underwater. Its nest is nothing more than a chamber which is formed at the end of an eighteen inch tunnel, both being excavated by the adult birds digging into a steep muddy riverbank and progressively the nest chamber becomes markedly foul smelling as the young grow towards fledging. Nest hygiene does not appear to be a priority in a Kingfisher's domestic existence. When I was a bird ringer with the BTO (The British Trust for Ornithology) I used to occasionally catch Kingfishers on my local River Hogsmill in Surrey and to this day can vividly recall my repugnance when on catching my first Kingfisher I held this creature of such beauty, close in my hand but was almost overpowered by the stench of stale fish emanating from its aggressively opened bill. Incidentally this bird almost fooled me to release it when it commenced to slowly and menacingly rotate its neck and head in an almost complete circle, like a serpent, presumably to persuade me to drop it in disgust or fear, which almost worked, so unexpected was such behaviour.

Those un-natural encounters, holding Kingfishers in my hand, were a long time ago and I have never since come anywhere so close to one in the wild. This year I resolved to rectify this and decided to pay for a day in a hide, especially constructed to allow this to happen. I am aware that there are those that decry such  contrived situations but I am sorry but I do not have the time to sit for hours on a riverbank in the hope that I may be undisturbed and by some miracle a Kingfisher will come and sit within feet of me. Nor do I have a fishing rod!

Before I carry on further here are some Kingfisher facts.

Kingfishers are split into seven subspecies, one of which occupies Britain, and have a wide overall distribution stretching from western Europe, east to Asia and south to North Africa. Our subspecies numbers around 6000 pairs and is mainly confined to southern and central England although it has expanded its range northwards to central Scotland. Any river or stream hosting Kingfishers is regarded as being of good quality and healthy. Male and female Kingfishers hold separate territories apart from the breeding season when they come together to breed and an average Kingfisher territory on a river or stream stretches for about one kilometre. In hard winters when water bodies freeze over for extended periods Kingfishers suffer very high mortality, as in the winter of 1962/63, when it was estimated 85-90% of Kingfishers in England died. However they are capable of having three broods a year so numbers are soon replaced although 50% of young Kingfishers are dead two weeks after leaving the nest and only 25% of the young will survive long enough to breed in the following year. Most Kingfishers live for little longer than one year although there is an extraordinary record of one bird living for twenty one years.

A brood of  Kingfishers require at least a hundred fish per day if they are to survive to fledging and an adult Kingfisher has to eat sixty percent of its bodyweight each day to survive.

In Victorian times with its mania for shooting birds and stuffing them to be displayed in cases  Kingfishers were high on the list of desirable victims but the stuffed bird's plumage never had the lustre and sheen of the living one.The reason for this is that the Kingfisher's plumage is not pigmented but the brilliant colours are derived from light striking modified layers of cells in the feathers.

Today I drove to just south of Birmingham and met Darren in a Macdonald's car park (it could only get better) and followed him to a nearby farm where he had several different hides strategically placed to photograph various birds such as the aforesaid  Kingfishers but also Buzzards, Kestrels, Green Woodpeckers and Little Owls. It is a business, just like those companies that charge a fortune to take you on exotic birding trips abroad to any country you care to name. As someone who ran my own business I recognised, in Darren, an entrepreneur when I saw one and we got on just fine. There was a demand and he was satisfying it. The majority of his clients were, he told me, serious photographers both amateur and professional rather than birders but for me it was an exercise to get close to Kingfishers as much, as if not more so, than to photograph them.

At eight thirty, on a cold and sunny morning Darren led me across a farm field full of lambs and left me in a hide overlooking a stream and above which was a strategically placed perch just five metres from the hide. I had the hide all to myself and making myself comfortable I sat to await the arrival of a Kingfisher on the perch. The first three hours passed very slowly as I waited in the gloom of the hide's spartan interior for a sight of the sparrow sized blue and orange beauty but nothing came and I began to feel very cold and not a little dispirited by the lack of action. There was literally nothing else to see and no other birds came anywhere near as I morosely stared out at the stream and listened to the sound of the running water. Yet another hour passed slowly and my phone told me it was just about noon and then, there was a Kingfisher, sat on the perch looking down at the water. I cannot begin to explain the sense of relief and almost effervescent joy the sudden appearance of the Kingfisher brought me. The trials and tribulations of the past four hours were forgotten in an instant, my feet no longer felt numb and life took on an optimistic aspect once more

The Kingfisher before me was a male, identifiable by its all black bill. Male and female Kingfishers are virtually identical apart from the bill where it is all black on the male while the base of the female's lower mandible is orange red. 

The Kingfisher sat there, as close as could be, upright on its perch. its tiny red feet grasping the perch whilst it looked down at the water below, jerking its head up and down and  turning it from side to side, as it sized up the angles for a dive to secure a fish. It finally dropped at some speed into the water below, with a resounding 'plop' and secured a fish which it took a few metres upstream to a small bare tree overhanging the water. 

It swallowed the fish whole and after ten minutes sitting there quietly, it was back for more fishing and caught another fish which it again flew off with but downstream this time. 

While it was perched near to the hide it was close enough to notice that its bill was stained with mud from where, presumably, it had been excavating a nest hole.

You can clearly see the mud stains adhering to the bird's bill
There was no immediate return by the Kingfisher, in fact there was no return for an hour at least, by which time I had been joined in the Hide by a serious photographer with an inordinate amount of impressively specialised and very expensive looking photography equipment.  I felt slightly intimidated as he started speaking in technical terms about focal lengths, aperture settings and shutter speeds, and worse, asking my opinion on photography matters well beyond my comprehension. It rapidly became clear to me that all these hides were more for the photographer than the likes of me, a birder who likes to also take photos of birds he sees.

This was way out of my league and I thought it best to confess to being a rank amateur and primarily a birder rather than a bird photographer who was intent on securing a world beating image. This seemed to do the trick as the photographer, recognising I was not in his league and really just a birder and not a competitor, became quite friendly and gave me some valued advice about camera settings and even suggested he could help me with my camera settings but I politely said I would rather stick to what I was comfortable with for now but would certainly experiment with his suggestions later. Frankly the Kingfisher's only two visits up to now had allowed me just a small number of images and I did not want to end up with a subsequent series of blurry photos as I took a chance and experimented with the complex technical information I had been given.

As we sat there and chatted I was amazed to hear my companion tell me he knew nothing about birds. He obviously knew what a Kingfisher was but his sole purpose was to get the ultimate shot of an iconic bird. So now I felt more at ease and more an equal, as we were both proficient in our respective areas of expertise but found ourselves in the same hide for different reasons. His main reason for visiting was to try and get an image of the Kingfisher hitting the water in a dive. Good luck with that! At least my relative incompetence with a camera and lens meant I would not be troubling myself about attempting anything so complicated.

There was still no sign of the Kingfisher and during a period of silence I got to thinking about the ever increasing intolerance and impatience that exists between birders and photographers. I could come over all superior with my knowledge of birds and be patronising about my new found colleague's lack of identification skills and whose main concern was the fact he just wanted a photograph but I did not feel that way, coming to what was almost a revelation for me in  that there are those whose main form of relaxation is to take a really good photo of a bird or animal even if they are  at times unsure of what it is.The technical aspect is their holy grail whereas mine is more humble in that I am happy to get a reasonably good image of a bird which I can at least identify

There is a place for both of us in this world but unfortunately the increasing numbers of both photographers and birders with cameras brings conflict as both sides transgress the norms of reasonable behaviour and it is not going to get any better.

The afternoon wore on but thankfully the Kingfisher made several more visits throughout the afternoon and both of us from our differing perspectives were happy with the experience. I had, by the time I left, been in the hide for no less than eight and a half hours and my chilled body certainly let me know it. A hot shower at home was never more welcome as I reflected on a successful but curiously disconcerting day out as I recalled a world revealed to me this afternoon by the photographer, that was until then completely unknown to me.

I must get out more!