Nature Quest: Wildlife spectacles – Watching winter wildfowl

A variety of wetland birds on flooded fields, SlimbridgeThousands upon thousands of ducks, waders, geese and swans festoon the pools and flooded fields in front of me as they peacefully feed, bathe, preen and rest. The air is filled with sound: the high-pitched ‘peeps’ of teal, the funny ‘whee-ow’ of the wigeon , the harsh calls of geese, and the gentle bugling calls of Bewick’s swans.

Suddenly, a huge cloud of ducks, lapwings and other waders rises into the air, their pale bellies twinkling like glitter as they catch the sunlight. I scan with my binoculars, trying to locate the cause of their alarm. Without warning, the flock wheels about with an audible ‘whoosh’, twisting and turning in the sky like one giant organism. There – a peregrine! The falcon has caught something and shoots over the top of the hide with its victim clutched in its talons.

View across the Tack Piece, WWT Slimbridge Lapwing flocks take to the skies, Slimbridge

A sky full of birds, Slimbridge A female peregrine preening, Slimbridge

Calm gradually returns and the flocks once more spread out over the ground. There are too many birds to count, and every look through my scope reveals a great variety of different species – lapwings, redshank, black-tailed godwits, curlews, teal, wigeon, mallards, pintails, shelducks, shovelers… Two well-camouflaged snipe are resting in the short grass in front of the hide, a little egret is feeding amongst the ducks, and from somewhere nearby a Cetti’s warbler gives its explosive call.

Just a snapshot of my first successful ‘Nature Quest‘ challenge of 2014!

Resting snipe Shelduck

A wintry wetland view, Slimbridge View towards the Severn Estuary, Slimbridge

A superb spectacle

If I was to define a ‘wildlife spectacle’, I suppose I would say that it was something that involved either huge numbers of animals, an amazing soundscape, or some sort of incredible display. Winter wildfowl surely provide all of these – huge numbers of birds of a variety of species, a great range of sounds and some fascinating behaviour, all set against a wild wetland landscape.

Male and female pintail Male and female mallard

Every year, millions of ducks, geese, swans and wading birds travel south from their breeding grounds in the Arctic, Siberia and Europe to spend the winter in the UK, where conditions are comparatively mild. These birds provide a wildlife spectacle that is both easy to see and virtually guaranteed at many coastal and wetland sites around the country.

I opted for a visit to WWT Slimbridge to complete my ‘wildfowl watching’ challenge, as not only is this fantastic reserve just down the road from me, but it also provides some of the best winter birdwatching around. Bewick’s swans are one of the most famous winter visitors here, and can be seen up close during daily feeds.

Slimbridge is also a place where you can see many captive wildfowl species up close… As well as some pretty tame wild moorhens, coots, swans, geese and woodpigeons! It also has an impressive corvid roost, with hundreds of jackdaws and rooks coming in to roost at dusk with a huge amount of noise and spectacle, and you can spot hundreds of gulls flying overhead as they go out to roost on the nearby estuary.

Bewick's swans, greylag geese and other birds coming in for a feed Feeding frenzy at Slimbridge

Greylag geese, Slimbridge Mute swan, Slimbridge Friendly woodpigeon, Slimbridge

Other wildlife to spot

And it’s not all about the wildfowl – as I experienced during my visit to Slimbridge, this can also be a great time of year to spot some of the predators that feed on the bonanza of winter bird life. It’s also worth keeping your eyes (and ears) peeled for other wildlife. Winter is a good time to spot visiting redwings, fieldfares and other small birds, to watch more familiar birds up close on feeders, or to make use of the fact that a lack of vegetation  can make the wildlife that bit easier to see. And don’t forget to look out for mammals, too – during my challenge I spotted a couple of tiny voles darting about beside the footpaths, and watched cheeky grey squirrels stealing food from the bird feeders!

I timed my visit during wet but relatively mild weather, but freezing conditions can also bring more unusual wetland birds such as bitterns and water rails into the open. If you take a trip to a coastal site, you may also be lucky enough to spot other wildlife such as seals, while visits to some wetlands can treat you to another great winter wildlife spectacle, the sight and sound of immense, whirling starling murmurations.

Goldfinch and blue tit on feeder Jackdaws on feeder Grey squirrel on feeder

Take it all in

Of course, experiencing the weather, landscape and other sights and sounds is also an integral part of enjoying any wildlife spectacle. Winter landscapes, particularly during dramatic weather, can be very beautiful in themselves and well worth getting outside for.

Wintry tree, Slimbridge Rookery at Slimbridge at dusk

Hints and tips

Here are a couple of my tips for a successful ‘winter wildfowl watching’ challenge:

  • Wrap up warm – sounds like common sense, but there’s nothing worse than trying to enjoy the wildlife while your toes have gone numb and the wind is freezing your hands and face! I recommend lots of layers and a thick pair of socks; don’t forget that open or exposed sites can be quite windy and chilly. If it’s wet, a pair of waterproof trousers (which go over your normal trousers) can not only help keep you dry but also add an extra windproof layer.
  • Wear wellies – not essential, and you might still be able to get around more accessible reserves with a good pair of shoes, but a pair of wellies means you don’t have to worry about getting wet and muddy. And also let’s be honest – splashing through puddles in your wellies can be quite fun!
  • Take some snacks – again, not essential, but guaranteed to make your trip a bit more enjoyable. A thermos of hot tea or coffee can also be very welcome after a day out in the cold!
  • Use your ears – ducks, geese and swans can be quite obvious and easy to see, but swotting up on the calls of other species before you go and listening carefully while you’re out and about could help alert you to the presence of other interesting wetland birds, such as noisy water rails, ‘pinging’ bearded tits, or even, come early spring, the ‘booming’ of male bitterns.
  • Take a camera or telescope – even if you can’t get close enough to get good photos of the birds, winter landscapes can still make beautiful photographic subjects. Most birds can be seen well with a good pair of binoculars, but if you’d like a closer look then a telescope can be invaluable, particularly for smaller birds like waders and for anything that is that bit further away. A word of warning, though – taking binoculars AND a camera AND a scope (and those essential layers and snacks) can mean an awful lot to carry – you might have to choose which to take!
  • Stand back and enjoy – although a camera and telescope can be great, you don’t want to miss out on the spectacle by viewing the whole thing through a lens. Don’t forget to take a bit of time to just stand back and take the whole thing in, using all your senses.

Black-headed gull, Slimbridge Tame moorhen

OVER TO YOU!

I successfully completed the challenge I set myself to watch some winter wildfowl, and had an amazing time. I’d like to now challenge you to have a go. Why not find a reserve near you and see what you can spot? Even a visit to a local park or lake is bound to turn up lots of bird life. I can guarantee it’ll be worth it!

For some ideas of where you can experience this wonderful wildlife spectacle in the UK, take a look at the sites below:

I’d love to hear how you get on – you can contact me via this blog, or tell me all about your adventures on Twitter using the hashtag #naturequest. Good luck!

Dozens of wild birds coming in for a feed, Slimbridge First signs of spring - snowdrops coming up, Slimbridge

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