Monday, 24 February 2020

Slim Pickings and all Yat. 4th & 8th February, 2020

We had a new motor and I had a day off on Tuesday because of a delay at work, a reasonable excuse then to go out for the day. Slimbridge WWT always offers good and easy birding and we hadn't been there for a while so thought that would make a decent destination. There was also the added attraction of a rare Goose to go for that had been found near Gloucester a couple of days before.

We left late so got caught out a bit by the traffic and didn't arrive at Slimbridge until 10 o'clock. Before we'd even found an isolated parking spot where we felt the car would be safe and remain unblemished, you know how it is when you have something new and shiny and our last car picked up a door dent first time out at Minsmere, we'd seen a Crane in one of the fields by the entrance road. We geared up, flashed our membership card, ignored all the good advice offered by the staff as usual and headed straight out to the South Lake. I was hoping to add a Cattle Egret to the year list since one had recently been seen on several occasions resting on the spit in front of the Discovery Hide. A quick scan revealed, of course, that the Cattle Egret was elsewhere this morning, probably hiding around the corner somewhere and waiting for us to leave. I half expected to see a sign announcing that, "I've gone fishing, will be back when the Caley's have left". There were some year list additions on offer though with Shelduck, Avocet and Oystercatchers all showing well enough.

The birds on the South Lake are very confiding, I guess they've become used to the hide and its occupants staring out at them so photography opportunities are limitless although before midday is not the best time since any sunshine and light is against the photographer. For a few minutes though I took a few photos of some of the more common resident birds. I do have to put something in this blog otherwise it would be even more boring than it undoubtedly already is.

Tufted Duck
We didn't linger too long and when a flock of a hundred or so Black-tailed Godwits flew in and settled at the southern end of the lake we decided to move along to the Hogarth Hide hoping that maybe the Cattle Egret was hiding in the marshy area there. 

Black-tailed Godwit flock
On the way to the Hogarth Hide many of the captive birds were encountered. I try hard not to waste any time taking more photos of those birds that don't count but I just had to make an allowance for a delightful Lesser White-fronted Goose that stood in the path ahead of us which wouldn't move until it had finished drinking from one of the many puddles.

Lesser White-fronted Goose, from the captive collection
We took our place in the hide alongside just a couple of other folk. The Hogarth Hide is always the least busy of the Slimbridge hides probably because it's a little tricky to find tucked away as it is behind the Otter and one of the Flamingo attractions. The Godwits were mostly sleeping en masse but there was one bird that was feeding close to the hide and affording lovely views. A gentleman sat to our right must have been a machine gunner in a previous life since for the next half hour his camera just rattled off shots continuously and he never moved his aim off of the Black-tailed Godwit. I wondered just how many images of the same bird that you need to take and then reminded myself that I took over 600 shots of a Wryneck last year and I dread to think how many I would take if I ever found another Capercaillie. My camera would likely melt! Each to their own and the old chap looked happy so who am I to pass judgement? I joined in and took a few frames of my own, Black-tailed Godwits are beautiful birds after all.

Black-tailed Godwit
A Common Crane sporting some colourful but ultimately plastic jewellery on its legs landed at the far edge of the lake. According to the Great Crane Project it was Sedge, a female which hatched on May Day in 2010. We watched the Crane walk nimbly and elegantly through the, ahem, sedges before it disappeared into longer reeds and out of view. A few minutes later I reacted quickly as Sedge the Crane came flying strongly past the hide window. I almost felt the whoosh of its wings as it passed by and most of my photos only fitted part of the bird in. Cranes are big! Of course the camera settings were all wrong  but it was pretty cool to stare such a majestic bird right in the eye as it flew past.

"Sedge" the Common Crane
After taking a few more shots of the Black-tailed Godwit, I was bored at being outgunned about 20 to 1 by the trigger happy Togger, so decided to have a look from some of the other hides. The Zeiss Hide had recently been a good spot from which to see a Bittern but the strong winds kept it deep in the reeds today. There was also no sign of a drake Green-winged Teal which had been seen over the last few days, a recurring theme for us so far this year. We did add Barnacle Geese and Dunlin to the years proceeding which tipped us over the 100 mark. I never took a single photo since all of the birds were miles away from the hide. The most action came at the picnic area outside of the hide where several Rooks have become habituated at clearing up people lunches. Rooks are really smart looking birds when the sun shines, their myriad of colours exposed and enhanced by the light.

Passing some of the captive wildfowl ponds we paused to watch some of our own native species, Smew, Scaup of both varieties, Goldeneye and Eider are all kept here. One drake Eider appeared to be showing off and performing tricks, judging by it holding a stick across its back in tightrope walking fashion.

Eider, from the captive collection
We moved onto the new Estuary Tower Hide which overlooks the Severn Estuary and the famous Dumbles where we twitched the Little Bustard last year. The hide is an impressive structure with commanding views in most directions. The top level is open but has a glass screen around it which is just high enough to prevent Mrs Caley from seeing over it! Views through the glass get refracted and blurred so it didn't work for her or other folk, at the same height or less, at all. It was also very windy on the top deck so we retreated back to the lower level. Viewing is again mainly through glass although some windows do open but that naturally allows the wind in so most of the windows remained closed on this blustery day. The glass is clearer though and you can see through better but it still impairs visual quality somewhat. There were more Cranes here and they were tentatively performing their courtship dance but were really just warming up for their full on breeding displays in the spring. The flock of Barnacle Geese on the river wall contained a Bar-headed Goose, no chance of that being accepted as a wild bird of course, but there was no sign of any White-fronted Geese. We've had difficulty locating the White-fronts here before at this time of year since they spend the day feeding in fields that can't be seen easily. A Peregrine watched everything from its perch atop a washed up tree on the river bank. Again I resisted the urge to take more crappy photos.

Birds are more confiding at the Willow Hide where Water Rails usually show extremely well, taking advantage of spilt seed from the feeders. None were out today of course so we watched a couple of Brown Rats scavenge instead but they were so quick that every time I snapped away at them all I caught was a photo of their refuge holes in the grassy bank. There was however, a beautiful drake Teal to admire and I took a few shots of some House Sparrows, a species that we are all guilty of overlooking at times.

House Sparrow
We were getting a little bit discouraged once again by our lack of success and needed some lunch so began back to the onsite restaurant. We stopped at the hides that look out onto the tack piece and added Bewick's Swans, Curlew and Ruff to our paltry year list. A quick look onto the Rushy Pen gave us a smart drake Mandarin Duck (I always enjoy writing that oxymoronically), not ringed but still probably plastic. Next month will bring many more birds back to the Rushy.

drake Mandarin Duck
The restaurant was now chocker with families and just about everybody else that had come to Slimbridge that day and I didn't fancy wasting valuable time queueing for ages to get served and to find a vacant table. We stopped at a pub instead and then looked unsuccessfully yet again for a famous Tawny Owl at Frampton which obviously didn't like the windy weather much and must have been tucked cosily away in its favoured roosting hole. Just the following day I saw another cracking photo of that Owl. 

Last stop of the day was made at Ashleworth Ham where a Tundra Bean Goose had been hanging out with the resident flock of Greylags. But we were there so the Bean Goose wasn't. When will our luck ever change for the better?

Once a year, at least, we make our way to the Forest of Dean area for a Goshawk fix. There are Goshawks in Oxfordshire but they can be very tricky to observe and are far from guaranteed. So in order to be almost assured of seeing some, Symond's Yat on the Gloucestershire and Herefordshire border is one of the best places to go. Symond's Yat Rock is also famous as being a breeding spot for Peregrine Falcons as well as being an immensely popular tourist attraction because of the views over the Wye Valley. The rock towers above the river far below and offers an elevated viewpoint over wooded areas in every direction. Many birds of prey species display over the woodlands. At ten o'clock in the morning it's still quiet so you get the viewpoint pretty much to yourself even still on this morning we were surprised to find that we had it entirely to ourselves and there were no other birders present. Of course that meant that we'd have to spot and identify the Goshawks ourselves! The weather was fine and sunny which is perfect for soaring and displaying birds of prey so we were confident that we could change our recent run of poor luck in finding our target birds. 

A quick scan of the wooded hillside to the south revealed that the male Peregrine was present, perched on almost exactly the same tree branch as the year before. Photographing the bird was a waste of time though owing to the sun that shone directly at us.

Soon some Buzzards took to the air but none morphed into Goshawks despite much study from me. At one time there were at least ten Buzzards flying in front of us, some distant and high up but others were more obliging and flew below the viewpoint and thus offered up different angles than the normal.

Common Buzzard
After an hour or so, as I was tracking yet another large bird that turned out to be just another Buzzard, Mrs Caley called, "What's this one?". She was looking towards the North and I easily locked onto the bird in question. Getting the scope fixed onto the bird showed a stocky build, full broad wings and longish looking tail. The "wrap around" white thigh feathering and general grey colouration underlined that it was indeed a Goshawk and a very nice adult to boot. Well done Mrs Caley!

I followed the Goshawk until it disappeared from view over the trees and studied the photos that I'd taken. Owing to the distance they weren't too clever but there was no doubting the birds identity. The Goshawk reappeared and flew across the river to the hillside opposite but frustratingly stayed well away. I willed it to fly closer to us so that I could get some decent images but it refused to do so I contented myself with fine scope views instead.

After the Goshawk had soared around for a few minutes it decided to travel quickly westwards with some serious intent. I legged it over to the other side of the viewpoint and watched it fly powerfully and low over the woods and past houses on the hillside. Unfortunately still distant from the viewpoint and I wondered how fantastic it would be to be looking out of one of those houses as the Goshawk flew past. But hey, we were just delighted to have seen our target bird for the day. That made a nice change!

The viewpoint was becoming busy with sightseers and they were proving to be an irritation to us. We were interrupted more than a few times, "What are you looking for?" was ok and I'm always happy to share but when we got asked more than once if we could "Take a photo of us please" then I began to get annoyed. I mean, couldn't they see we were busy? You can't afford to take your eyes off the skies when looking for Goshawks. Despite my increasing infuriation we decided to stick it out until midday in the hope of better views but there was no further sign of Goshawks although we did see a Peregrine flying like an airborne torpedo and added Ravens to the day list.

Peregrine Falcon
The best performers were undoubtedly the Buzzards which often flew in close enough for very good views. However the touristy types were really beginning to do our heads in and we couldn't take any more of the inaneness of the Instagram brigade so took our leave vowing to return on a weekday next year.

After lunch we made a quick recce to Cannop Ponds to see the local Mandarin Ducks which could definitely be counted despite their original introduced status. The drakes were very much involved into sorting the pecking order out and were busy fighting amongst themselves and chasing the females for a bit more than pecking. There isn't much in the UK birding world that is as handsome as a drake Mandarin even if he looks more than a bit gaudy.

Mandarin Ducks
We then managed to revert back to form by making a trip to Crabtree Hill to look for a Great Grey Shrike which ended in failure, the third lack of success with that species already this year. I'm not going to bother looking for another. We did at least have the satisfaction of hearing and seeing some Common Crossbills fly overhead.

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