Up close with the birds at WWT Slimbridge

Male tufted duck, WWT Slimbridge

In a previous blog back in June 2011 I wrote about one of my favourite birdwatching places, WWT Slimbridge in Gloucestershire, UK. In that post, I talked about what a fantastic place Slimbridge is – it really has something for everyone, whether you are a serious birder or just want an enjoyable family day out. It also offers a range of experiences, from close-up encounters with captive species to the sights and sounds of hundreds of wild birds out in the fields and on the estuary.

It’s also a great place to hone your wildlife photography, particularly as you can get within centimetres of some of the birds – a real bonus if you don’t have the best telephoto lens!

Slimbridge in autumn

After far too long without a visit, I finally managed to take a trip to Slimbridge last weekend and enjoy some of the autumn sights and sounds. The reserve and the birds were looking fantastic in the sunshine, although sunset comes far too soon at this time of year! Slimbridge is a special place; the moment I drive up to the car park and see the wide, open skies and hear the calls of the geese and swans, I can feel my whole body relax. This is the place to be.

View towards the estuary, WWT SlimbridgeAutumn leaf reflections Autumn leaves, WWT Slimbridge

Autumn leaves, WWT Slimbridge Autumn leaf, WWT Slimbridge

The fields around the reserve were full of hundreds of godwits, lapwings, geese, wigeon, teal and other waterbirds, but rather than spend hours in the hides peering through my binoculars I decided to spend much of this visit making the most of the birds that were a little closer. Slimbridge is home to a great collection of captive wildlfowl from around the world, but there are also dozens of moorhens, coots, mallards, woodpigeons and gulls that mill about your feet or hang around for scraps of food amongst the ever-hungry geese and swans.

Moorhen, WWT Slimbridge Mute swan feathers, WWT Slimbridge

Stop, look and listen

It was worth taking the time to stop and observe these birds – it can be all too easy to race across the reserve to get to the hides and away from the crowds, and so overlook things along the way. I tried taking a bit of time just to stand, watch and listen as the birds fed, fought, preened and bathed just metres away from me. It was also the chance to try out a bit of photography. One of the few downsides of a visit to Slimbridge is that I always come away with several hundred photos to sort through and edit!

For the first time, I had a go at a bit of black and white photography, but the birds were all looking so glorious in the sunshine that a lack of colour seemed to take something away from the shots. Two alternative photos of greylag geese are below – see which one you prefer!

Greylag goose in black and white Greylag goose portrait

My most memorable encounter of the afternoon was with one of Slimbridge’s perhaps slightly less charismatic residents, a female mallard. She was quietly milling about on a raised pond, and when I crouched down to take a photo she came swimming over in the hope of being fed. Seeing that I didn’t have anything for her, she didn’t immediately swim away, but instead watched me for a few moments, nose-to-beak, and uttered a few quiet, conversational quacks into my face before gently moving away again. A small moment maybe, but a surprisingly confiding one that I would have missed if I had not paused and come down to her level.

One of the other highlights of the day involved being deafened by a mob of winter-plumaged black-headed gulls that were desperate to get to food that had been scattered behind netting so that only the diving ducks could easily reach it. I’ve always thought of the black-headed gull as a slightly smaller, gentler and more fairy-like relative of the larger, bossier gulls that frequent the city where I live… but the sight and sound of the feeding frenzy that ensued was quite something. The birds were so excited that they were repeatedly landing on the backs of a couple of swans, much to the swans’ annoyance!

Black-headed gull standing on juvenile mute swan Black-headed gull standing on a mute swan

Sunset over the reserve

Although the sun went down frustratingly early, putting paid to further photography attempts, it was worth hanging around until sunset as the corvid roost at the reserve is always a treat. The short video clip below gives some idea of the noise at the reserve’s rookery during the day, but in the evening hundreds of jackdaws and rooks stream in to roost, the jackdaws often taking flight in wheeling, noisy, almost starling-like flocks. Apologies for the shaky camera-work – a long lens is not always a good thing!

The skies were also filled with thousands of other birds, as smaller birds went to their roosts and wave after wave of gulls poured overhead on their way out towards the Severn Estuary. Despite a sense of peace and calm, it was anything but quiet. I took a few moments just to pause, listen and take in the atmosphere again as the air filled with the harsh caws of the corvids, the soft grunts of mute swans, the irritated-sounding quacks of mallards, the bugling of the captive cranes and a myriad of peeps, whistles, quacks and squeaks from the other waterfowl.

Black-headed gulls in winter plumage, WWT Slimbridge Black-headed gull at sunset

Sleepy woodpigeon Greylag goose in black and white

Did I get a species count for the day? Do I even remember how many different birds I saw? Was that distant bird in a tree that looked little more than a large, pale shape in my binoculars a peregrine or not? It didn’t matter. What counted on this visit was that I remembered to look and listen again – to really look and to really listen – and to just enjoy the birds rather than trying to count them or tick them off on a list.

I will definitely be back over the next few months to enjoy the spectacle of hundreds of Bewick’s swans wintering on the reserve, to see which species are using the feeders and to spot any unusual creatures brought out into the open by the cold weather (a water rail under the bird feeders was a highlight for me last year!). Here’s hoping for my first bittern…!

Male tufted duck flapping

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